It’s an early-season test for the Clippers with a meeting against Oklahoma City at Staples Center.
In fact, it’s a much-anticipated one between two teams that could contend for the Western Conference title. Only moments after the Clippers downed Minnesota on Monday night, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was asked about the showdown.
“Can I enjoy tonight?” he asked. “I mean, My gosh.”
The Clippers (5-3) have been playing improved defense but this time they’ll be dealing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who is back after knee surgery.
“I am happy that Westbrook’s back in time for us to least prepare, so that will give us a sense of how to guard,” Rivers said. “That’ll be a tough one.”
Rivers said he doesn’t look at games like this as much more than another game on the schedule but at the same time, he’s not discounting its importance.
“They all matter,” he said. “One game can be the difference between that last game being at home. When you play a playoff team, and you can beat a playoff team, it’s a two-for.”
The Thunder (5-1) will be without starting center Kendrick Perkins, who traveled to Texas due to the death of his grandfather. Steven Adams, a 7-foot rookie from Pittsburgh, will start.
Almost reluctantly, the Clippers are giving themselves subtle pats on their own backs for their improving defense.
They acknowledge they still have some ground to cover, but whatever lid they put on the basket at the final buzzer Monday night could qualify as the stop of the season.
When Minnesota’s Kevin Love couldn’t coax a put-back to crawl over the rim as time expired at Staples Center, the Clippers escaped with a 109-107 victory.
“We play a lot faster this year and obviously that gives the other team an opportunity to score a little more, but we’ve got to get stops,” guard Chris Paul said. “It’s not good enough at times to be there because even though we’re there, teams are making shots. We’ve got to force them to miss.”
The Timberwolves, a night after shredding the Lakers in the same building, never went away as they chased the Clippers down the stretch. They had three shots to tie the game after taking possession with 6.9 seconds left.
Kevin Martin got the first shot, but he was obstructed when DeAndre Jordan jumped out on him on a switch.
Center Nikola Pekovic got the rebound and put up a short hook that missed, then Love had his chance to clean it up.
“My natural instinct was to try to rush and put it up there,” said Love, who had 23 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists. “It sat on the rim and like I said, 99 out of 100 times that goes in. That was my bad.”
The Clippers got the sigh of relief instead and even though they gave up 107 points and allowed 96 shots, they were somewhat enthused by their defensive effort.
“It’s funny, they scored 107 points but shot 41 percent, so defensively that’s really good,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But they had 96 shots. I look at one number and I love it, but then I look at another and I think they gave up a lot of points.”
Griffin led the Clippers with 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and his newfound attention to the defensive end seems to be paying off.
He had to guard Love on the heels of battling LeBron James in Miami last week.
“Every year I try to take another step. This year is no different,” Griffin said. “Really, help defense is a huge thing because in our system it’s all about help defense and that trust somebody’s going to have your back if you have somebody else’s back.
“I take a lot of pride in defense, despite what it might look like.”
Paul had 21 points and 11 assists and Jamal Crawford and 18 points and six assists. His 51-foot bank shot at the third-quarter buzzer gave the Clippers an 85-80 lead.
“I think with plays like that, a lot of guys don’t want to shoot because it will ruin their percentage,” Crawford said. “I tried to go for it. I think plays like can uplift the crowd and can hopefully lift the team up to get a win.”
The Clippers shot 58.7 percent in the first half and still only led by one point. They pushed their lead to 86-80 early in the fourth quarter, but Minnesota came back to take an 87-86 lead.
That’s when the Clippers began to impose their will and the Timberwolves’ shot started to go flat.
Crawford began a 12-0 run with a three-point play and Adelman had to call a timeout with 6:19 left with the Clippers ahead, 96-87, but they weren’t done. Crawford hit a jumper after a steal by Matt Barnes to give the Clippers an 11-point lead.
It was Barnes’ first game after missing all three on the road trip with a bruised thigh.
Martin finished with 30 points and Pekovic had 25 points and 10 rebounds.
But when the Clippers needed defense, they brought itThe Timberwolves shot only 34.8 percent in the final period.
“We’re almost there,” Paul said. “A lot of times tonight we were in the right spots but I still think we’ve got to get better rebounding. That’s collectively. We can’t rely on Blake and (DJ) to get all the rebounds. We’ve got to get in there and collective rebound.”
Reserve guard Darren Collison may be scuffling along offensively – he entered Monday’s game shooting 31.6 percent from the field – but Rivers doesn’t mind.
Especially when he can be the spearhead in the Clippers’ defensive plans.
“He’s not a pure point guard, he’s just a guard that’s small,” Rivers said. “But the thing I love the most about him and he had an impact in the game the other night, he has the ability to put pressure on the ball and get into guys.
“He guarded (Houston’s) Patrick Beverley and then he guarded (James) Harden at the top and it was very tough to shake him. It’s nice to have a guy that you can say, ‘Go sic ‘em.’ That’s what we want him to do.
“I could care less about the points. He’s going to get the points because he has speed. He’s going to get points because he’s playing with four really good players a lot and the ball will find him and he’ll have a shot. I just want him to be a great defender. His offense will come.”Clippers
Minnesota’s Kevin Love entered the game averaging 26.9 points and 14.4 rebounds, but the appreciation for the former UCLA star’s game doesn’t stop there. Rivers marveled at Love’s ability with the outlet pass.
“My dad pounded into me about Wes Unseld, so that’s who Love is,” Rivers said. “Every time I mentioned someone had an outlet pass, my dad said ‘He’s not a Wes Unseld.’ I’m going to say Wes Unseld.”
Unseld, the undersized Hall of Fame center, was Rookie of the Year and MVP in the 1968-69 season. Rivers said Love has the best outlet pass since the Unseld.
“Not in my recent time,” Rivers said. “Charles Oakley, who was one of my teammates, threw them but he usually threw them out of bounds. Tell him someone else said that.”
When the Clippers held Houston to only 39 points in the second half of their 107-94 victory on Saturday, it represented the exact kind of defense Coach Doc Rivers is seeking for his club.
He also warned against getting too accustomed to it. Rivers knows that defensive work just doesn’t click at one moment and it’s there for good.
“There’s no turning points,” Rivers said before Monday’s game against Minnesota at Staples Center. “Listen, if we play like that every night defensively, we may not lose again. We played a great offensive team, that’s what Houston is, and our defense kind of woke up for a second. It would be great if that’s the start of it. Now, I just think it takes time. But it was great.”
The Clippers showed the communication Rivers has been waiting for as they clawed back from a 13-point deficit.
“Our weak side defense in the Houston game for the first time this year I thought was spectacular. On film, it looked better,” Rivers said. “Everybody was down in their stance . . . guys were pointing early to the plays before they were happening. That takes a great amount of intensity and a great amount of focus and we had it. I’m hoping it builds, but I don’t think it’s ‘Now we have it.’ ”
Rivers also is trying to get accustomed to ignoring the score of the game while tracking the Clippers’ defensive work.
“I have to get comfortable with the fact we’re scoring a lot of points and scoring quickly, so that means the other team will have far more opportunities to score,” he said. “That may means they may score more points, but the percentage is what I’m happy with.”
You have Blake Griffin vs. Kevin Love at power forward. Ricky Rubio, fresh off a triple-double against the Lakers, takes on Chris Paul. Kevin Martin vs. J.J. Redick could turn into a shootout.
Those are the matchups that matter at the outset when the Clippers (4-3) take on Minnesota (5-2) at Staples Center Monday night.
The Clippers, coming off a trip-salvaging victory over Houston, gave up only 39 points in the second half of that 107-94 victory.
On Sunday, Minnesota scored 47 points in the first quarter of their 113-90 rout of the Lakers and the Timberwolves are averaging 34 points in the first quarter this season. They’ve hit 38 three times.
The game notes are here:
On a three-game win streak, the highest-scoring team in the league takes to the road for its first significant trip of the season. And it doesn’t hurt heading out onto the road with a 137-118 win over Houston under the Clippers’ belt.
“It helps,” Coach Doc Rivers said after the win over the Rockets. “This was an important game. You didn’t want to go on this trip having lost and having to (the Rockets) again at their place.” After facing the Magic (2-2), the Clippers will face Miami Thursday and Houston Saturday before returning for a four-game homestand.
After shooting 52.1 percent against Houston, the Clippers (3-1) are shooting 50.3 as a team. All five starters are shooting 50 percent or higher.
Chris Paul (26.5 points per game, 13.3 assists) has had a double-double in all four games. . . . Of course, the Clippers are trying to sort out their defense. “We have a ways to go defensively,” guard J.J. Redick said. “I think we’re feeling more and more comfortable in our half-court defense. We’re starting to really understand some stuff.”
Orlando started 0-2 but has rebounded with lopsided wins over After easily beating New Orleans (110-90) on Friday, Orlando downed Brooklyn, 107-86) Sunday. Former USC standout Nikola Vucevic had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the latter game. . . . This will be the Clippers’ first look at rookie Victor Oladipo, who is averaging 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4 assists and scored 19 against the Nets.
The highest-scoring team in the NBA came to the bench after the first quarter after scoring 42 points and building a 17-point lead.
And they were annoyed.
“Even thought we scored 42 in the first, we gave up 25,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “So instead of us being so happy we scored 42, we were upset about the 25. So it shows we’re focused on the right thing and going in the right direction.”
More like soaring in the right direction, and even if the defense remains a work in progress, they have the comfort in knowing that at times, the offense can be their defense.
That was on display Monday night when the Clippers never trailed in a 137-118 win over Houston in Dwight Howard’s return to Los Angeles. But from the outset, it was clear that this would be more than a battle in the paint.
It was the Clippers’ highest-scoring game since hitting 140 against the New York Knicks in 2009 and while they’re not exactly griping about the offensive output, they’re intent on shoring up the other end of the court.
In other words, a lot has changed since the early days of preseason camp when Coach Doc Rivers said the defense was ahead of the offense.
“I was delusional,” Rivers said, drawing laughs. “I think our defense is pretty good. It’s what’s getting our leads, then we break down. I thought early on we were scoring and getting stops, scoring and getting stops, and right now it seems when we get that lead, we kind of break down in our focus.”
Howard was booed continuously by Clippers fans until he picked up his third foul in the first quarter and left the game to cheers. He didn’t play the rest of the half.
It started with J.J. Redick scoring 15 of his season-high 26 points in the first quarter and then turned into another showcase for Paul, who had 23 points and 17 assists as the Clippers (3-1) handed the Rockets (3-1) their first loss of the season.
“The guy can shoot the basketball. It’s unbelievable,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said of Redick. “The best part about playing with him is he never stops moving. He’s not one of those guys who spots up in the corner and that’s all he does. He’s constantly moving, cutting, misdirection or running off three screens. That’s how he gets his shots. He really works for them.
“He’s going to be great for us.”
The Clippers had had six players reach double figures and backup center Byron Mullens added nine. Jamal Crawford had 21 points, Griffin had 18 points and seven rebounds and Jared Dudley had 15 points.
Center DeAndre Jordan finished with 11 points and nine rebounds.
Houston also had six players in double figures but had subpar games from James Harden (15 points on 6-for-16 shooting) and Howard, who had 13 points and nine rebounds. Howard entered the game averaging a league-best 17 rebounds.
Omri Casspi had 19 points off the bench for the Rockets and Chandler Parsons and Francisco Garcia each had 14 points.
“It’s funny – we haven’t held a team under 100 yet in four games, and I promise you our defense is better than it looks,” Paul said. “I think what has to be better is our transition defense. If you look at us now, if we get back and get set, we have our principles there, we’re relying on each other but it’s in spurts.
“It’s going to get better. It’s a process. It’s nice to learn and win.”
The Clippers had four players in double figures by halftime – and Jamal had nine at that point – and their 78-point outburst was the most in club history for a half since moving to Los Angeles. The San Diego Clippers scored 87 in a half against Utah in 1984.
But they only led by 12 against the 3-point happy Rockets, who got a boost from Casspi off the bench. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half to help keep the Rockets, who trailed by as many as 17, within striking distance.
Led by Dudley’s three 3-pointers, the Clippers hit 15 for the game and held Houston to 7-for-24 from distance.
And to think Rivers’ No. 1 concern heading into the game was the frontcourt duo of the 6-foot-11 Howard and 7-0 Omer Asik.
“They’re big. They’re huge,” Rivers said. “They don’t play that way the whole game but it presents a major problem. When they start their five and then they start their (reserve) five, that’s a problem.
“We have to rebound as a team, we have to gang rebound and we have to create a pace tonight because if we get in to their pace it will be a tough night.”
The Clippers now head out on the road for three games to play Orlando, Miami and Houston.
DeAndre Jordan didn’t have to tangle with Dwight Howard too much in the first half because Howard picked up three first-quarter fouls.
The tougher assignment of the night, however, figured to be J.J. Redick against James Harden, but Rivers liked his player’s chances.
“J.J.’s tough. He’s just a tough kid,” Rivers said. “Harden is tough for everybody to guard so you’re never worried about the great players that much, because they’re great. If they were easy to guard or you could stop them, they wouldn’t be great. It took me a long time to figure that one out.
“What you have on the average nights, those are the nights you have to stand out defensively. Nights like tonight, you have to try to contain as much as possible. But Harden is a terrific player.”
In the first half alone, Redick went for a season-high 19 points. Harden had 10 points and made only 4 of 12 shots.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale, like everyone else, knows the rather dismal history of the Clippers. That doesn’t mean he applies any of it to the current product.
“I’ve never understood what somebody who did something 15 years ago (means anything) and these guys have never met,” McHale said. “They say ’15 years ago the Clippers did this.’ I’m like 15 years ago, these guys were like 9. They don’t care. Culture change is really about what you’ve got going right now and right now they have great culture.”
Not to mention a few good parts to work with.
“They’ve got guys here to do it,” McHale said. “Chris Paul’s is as good as it gets with the ball in his hands in our league. He’s a great leader, Doc’s proven, won a championship.”