Winning Game 2, Clippers show their intensity -- just check their glares

An hour before Wednesday night's playoff game, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers marched through the locker room, slapped a back and seriously issued a directive.

"Focus!" he shouted.

He wasn't talking to players. He was talking to writers.

Soon thereafter, before the Clippers engaged the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of their first-round series, a historic trophy ceremony took place at center court at Staples Center. With his coach at his side, Clipper Jamal Crawford became the first three-time winner of the sixth-man-of-the-year award.

Except Crawford didn't smile. And Rivers didn't smile. And even though Crawford dutifully held the trophy above his head, he didn't speak.

Two games into their third postseason under Rivers, one thing has become obvious. These are serious Clippers. These are grown-up Clippers. They've adopted Chris Paul's scowl, Rivers' voice, Blake Griffin's glare. One could say they've even sneaked down the hall and taken possession of Kobe Bryant's big-boy pants.

They've also done something no other Clippers team has done under Rivers. They have won the first two games of a postseason series, triumphing, 102-81, against the wide-eyed Trail Blazers on Wednesday to make a powerful statement.

This isn't cute Lob City. This is no fun Clip Joint. This is a glaring team clearly scarred from past postseason failures, a team intent on playing every possession with the sort of consistent intensity that has often disappeared with the coming of summer.

"I think our focus has been fantastic," said Rivers.

One can never write that a Clippers series is over, but this one feels like it. One can never say the Clippers are going to steamroll into the next round, but this sure looks like it. A 20-point win in the opener, and a 21-point win Wednesday, and how are the Trail Blazers going to beat them four out of the next five?

It started Wednesday with serious depth. The Clippers' bench stole the show from some of the slow-starting starters. Crawford scored 11. Jeff Green scored 10. Cole Aldrich had eight rebounds. Overall, they outscored the Trail Blazers' bench 43-10 while combining for a stunning plus-89.

The bench was at its best at the start of the fourth quarter when the Trail Blazers closed the gap to six. The subs roared back with big moments everywhere, including Wesley Johnson picking up a loose ball and throwing it in, followed soon thereafter by Austin Rivers hitting a three-pointer and posing — with a scowl! — near midcourt with his team suddenly leading by 13.

"They just changed the game for us, they were spectacular tonight," said Doc Rivers of his subs. "I thought on both sends, they saved the game for us tonight."

It continued Wednesday with serious defense. The hot and hip Trail Blazers barely made a third of their shots. The Clippers swarmed and swatted and stifled Portland stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum for a second consecutive game, holding them to a combined 33 points on 12-for-39 shooting.

It finished with serious leadership. The injured Griffin struggled as if his body had not yet recovered from his brilliant Game 1, making just four baskets. But Paul and J.J. Redick picked up the slack by throwing in shots from all over the court, combining for 42 points, with Redick even nailing a three while being knocked into the Clippers' bench.

And, oh yeah, Griffin finally found his legs midway through the fourth quarter to score on a thunderous dunk, so there's that.

No more dunks over cars. No more jokes about State Farm commercials. Just a team intent on finishing a reeling opponent when it needs to be finished.

Clippers fans also get it. They are no longer just happy to be here, either. During a timeout promotion in the second quarter, a fan in a Clippers T-shirt was being interviewed on the court. He suddenly gave a shout-out to Bryant and was roundly booed off the floor.

The Clippers aren't joking. They've been here, they've done this, they've melted during the early heat of the last two springs, they don't want to live through it again.

"Guys know how valuable each game is, they know how valuable each possession is," said Paul.

They will never forget last season against Houston, blowing the 19-point lead in the third quarter of a potential clinching Game 6 against the Rockets before becoming the ninth team in NBA history to lose a series after leading three games to one.

They will never forget two seasons ago, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder by seven in the final minute of Game 5 before Paul inexplicably began making mistakes and the Clippers blew it, losing by a point en route to eventually losing the series.

They won't forget the past years, and they are still smarting from their recent turmoil, the failures of Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson followed by the punch by Griffin. There's lots of baggage here. The Clippers are carrying it into late April with a glare.

"Our core guys have been together three years now, and gone through a lot this year, we've had no choice," said Rivers. "Obviously I would have chosen not to go through some of the stuff, but in some ways that may have helped us."

River said their horrid postseason history has hardened them.

"Let's be honest, we've had two tough [postseasons]," he said. "Everybody, when you lose in the playoffs, you don't leave the right way, but ours felt like they were tougher the last two years, that's kind of made us grow as well."

Serious basketball. With Golden State coming, it's a good time for it.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 21, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Schooled by playoff failures, these Clippers are intense scowlers" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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