Nine, eight, seven …
The countdown to the truly meaningful games is on for the Clippers now that they have clinched a playoff berth. They have nine games and about three weeks left to work on things that could help them in the games that follow.
Coach Doc Rivers identified executing second and third options on offense as an area of emphasis over the rest of the regular season.
"That's been our focus now for about two weeks because in the playoffs, you don't get your first option," Rivers said Friday night after the Clippers' 119-98 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. "If you do, it's rare. You've got to be able to run stuff with continuity no matter what their defense is doing and play through it, so that's all we've been talking about."
The prospect of the Clippers improving what already ranks as the NBA's most efficient offense should frighten the rest of the Western Conference.
Point guard Chris Paul said he took pride in running the best possible plays for the Clippers.
"I'm just trying to make sure that we're looking at this option," Paul said, "and if it's not there we go to the next one."
A large part of the Clippers' improvement over a monthlong stretch in which they've won 11 of 15 games has been their defensive consistency, something that was lacking earlier.
The Clippers have resembled a complete team in recent weeks, giving forward Blake Griffin confidence they could be on the verge of something special.
"I'm rolling with everybody in the locker room," Griffin said. "I like our team and I like our chances. We have to play the right way and we have to all play hard and we have to really take ownership defensively."
Philadelphia had some success intentionally fouling center DeAndre Jordan on Friday, but the bevy of missed free throws were only part of the problem.
The Clippers' spotty defense also contributed to a brief 76ers comeback.
"I was disappointed they kept scoring," Rivers said. "To me, if you're fouling a guy and he's making one of two and you're getting stops, you usually increase your lead. Tonight, they scored every time they fouled one of us."
Jordan made only five of 17 free throws and said he "absolutely" expected teams to use the intentional fouling strategy in the playoffs. Not that he minded.
"I feel like that's a team's last resort," Jordan said. "It's like, OK, we can't stop this so we're going to do something that we can pray that works and when it doesn't — I'm knocking down free throws or I'm hitting one out of two and then we're still coming down and getting stops — there's nothing else."
Rivers is returning to TD Garden on Sunday for the second time since he left the Boston Celtics to coach the Clippers. He doesn't expect a repeat of the emotional scene that unfolded last season in his first time back.
"I don't think we're doing videos and stuff," said Rivers, who coached the Celtics for nine seasons and guided them to the 2008 NBA title. "I think now you can just go and play. But it's still really nice. The fans there are phenomenal and they're playing well. It's going to be a hell of a game."
UP NEXT FOR CLIPPERS
Sunday at Boston Celtics
When: 3 p.m. PDT
Where: TD Garden.
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 980, 1330.
Record vs. Celtics: 1-0.
Update: Boston holds a half-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, magnifying the importance of each of the Celtics' final 10 games. Boston kept things relatively close during a 102-93 loss to the Clippers in January at Staples Center.