LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers are neither as good as they look in their most promising moments nor as hopeless as things seem at their worst. They can knock the almost-unbeatable Golden State Warriors against the ropes yet still find a way to lose; they can drop three consecutive games yet still find themselves right in the middle of the Western Conference playoff pack.
They exist in that maddening middle, and it's starting to look as though they're condemned to stay there. All of the talk of the need to make bigger statements after back-to-back losses in Texas over the weekend fizzled when they returned home and lost 100-99 to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night, dropping them to 0-4 against the Western Conference's top three teams. There are no major changes to be made within, and it would take a dramatic roster makeover to bring in significant help from outside.
For now, coach Doc Rivers is using a chisel rather than a sledgehammer. He didn't play Josh Smith on Monday, turning to seldom-used big man Cole Aldrich instead. The other players had basically subtweeted their displeasure with Smith (and all the uncertainty that comes with playing alongside him) through the media, with several quotes discussing the need for people to know their roles.
Aldrich, along with some Good Lance Stephenson, helped the Clippers' bench hold its own against the Thunder's second unit. But the Clippers lost the battle of the superstars, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook outscoring Blake Griffin and Chris Paul 57-47, including 16-10 in the fourth quarter. That the Clippers could even come close on a night Griffin shot 7-for-21 could actually be considered an encouraging sign. Then again, the Clippers have collected several encouraging signs this season and discovered they have no cash value.
"If we play with that type of energy, most nights we're going to win the game," Rivers said.
The problem is, they don't play with that type of energy most nights, which is the simplest explanation for their nine other losses besides the four to the West's top dogs.
"The great teams are able to bring it every night, no matter who they are playing against," Paul said. "That's why the Spurs, Warriors, and those types of teams have the record that they do. For us, we have had different lineups every night and different guys in and out, but that is part of fielding a great team. That's what we are trying to do here."
So yeah, there are inconsistent rotations to match the inconsistent efforts.
"I guess that's the gift and the curse of having so much depth, is finding the right rotation and the right guys to plug in and we're still figuring it out," was Jamal Crawford's somewhat cryptic response to a question about this game's lineups.
Rivers said Aldrich had done enough to earn more run in upcoming games. So that's the new look for the Clippers. Everything else seems very familiar.