At midpoint of NBA season, Clippers seem stuck in the middle

Clippers' 27-14 record is only sixth in West, projecting to a tough playoff road, and defense is a major issue

What might have been the Clippers' best victory of the season (on the road against Portland) came three days after what was certainly their worst loss (at home against Miami), which immediately followed two games (triumphs over the Lakers and Dallas) in which they finally appeared to be getting it together.

Confused? So are the Clippers.

"We've been so up and down and inconsistent, I don't remember too much," point guard Chris Paul said last week when asked to assess whether the victory over the Trail Blazers was the team's most significant of the season. "I'm serious. It seems like there's been so much going on. I don't even know what our record is."

It's now 27-14, one game worse than it was at the midpoint of last season. But there's no easy explanation for how the Clippers got here. It almost seems as if their games are decided by one of those black mystery ball toys you shake to see what kind of outcome it will deliver.

Coach Doc Rivers continues to seek improvements in consistency, team cohesion and defense, not to mention a reliable second scoring option off the bench to complement Jamal Crawford.

On the plus side, he has half a season to figure it all out before the games that really count. Here are five burning questions confronting the Clippers halfway toward a destination unknown:

How far can they go if they don't fix their maddening inconsistency?

Hmm. Can a team make the playoffs and lose before the first round starts?

That would be a fitting outcome for the Clippers given the way they've played so far. Their talent level is unquestioned with two elite players in Paul and Blake Griffin and a dynamic scorer in Crawford.

But their intensity has wavered and the first and second units have often played as if they're not even part of the same team.

The Clippers' record puts them on track to be the sixth-seeded team in the Western Conference, which as of Monday would result in their starting the playoffs on the road in Memphis. That would be pretty close to a worst-case scenario.

More than gaining homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs, the Clippers need to show they are capable of sustaining the kind of play they need to win a series against an opponent every bit as formidable as themselves.

Can adding two Duke alums help the Clippers improve their grade in chemistry?

Absolutely, if an early pop quiz against the Sacramento Kings was any indication.

Dahntay Jones was so active cheering on his new teammates that if he isn't re-signed after his 10-day contract expires next week, he should audition for the Clipper Spirit dance team. Newcomer Austin Rivers also logged plenty of time standing and clapping when he wasn't in the game.

The enthusiasm seemed contagious as starters DeAndre Jordan and Paul applauded the second unit's efforts throughout the second half. Doc Rivers said he had to ask his starters to move back closer to the bench four or five times because they were so engaged.

"It's fun when you hear life," he said. "I like the life of our team right now. They're enjoying each other and it's really nice."

That's not to say that the recently departed Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jordan Farmar and Reggie Bullock weren't liked, but they were not particularly good fits on the court.

Is it possible to win an NBA title with a middling defense?

Don't count on it. Of the last 10 champions, none had a defense ranked worse than 14th in points allowed or ninth in defensive efficiency.

That's troubling news for the Clippers, who before Sunday ranked 18th in the former category (allowing 100.7 points per game) and 16th in the latter (giving up 106.4 points per 100 possessions).

"A lot of games, we've won offensively," said Paul, mindful that his team ranks fifth in points scored (106.9 per game) and second in offensive efficiency (113 points per 100 possessions).

That has to change or the Clippers won't make it even halfway to the NBA Finals.

Can the Clippers' second unit be pushed lower on the depth chart?

If only the fix were that easy.

The reserves are averaging 31.1 points per game, ranking 21st in the league. More than half of those points come from Crawford, who is averaging 15.7 points per game during a season that has put him in position to win an unprecedented third sixth-man-of-the-year award.

Of course, the Clippers are going to need more than that. Spencer Hawes must resemble the lob-throwing, three-point-shooting force the team thought it was getting this summer. Hedo Turkoglu must recapture his early-season shooting form that mysteriously vanished. Glen Davis must continue to make the energy plays that boost his teammates' effort level.

Doc Rivers also must scour the league for potential buyout additions like Nate Robinson.

"Our bench, they're going to get better," Rivers said. "I have to get them a continuity so they can move and play together and not just rely on Jamal — that's on me, it's not on them."

How will the Rivers family reunion work out?

Better than expected, if Austin can replicate his defense-oriented performance against Sacramento.

The combo guard has missed all seven shots in his first two games but looked vastly more comfortable against the Kings, blocking a shot and hounding his counterparts.

"His defense was phenomenal, and that's what we need," Doc Rivers said. "You could see the ball pressure. That's what we need. The offense will come, but we needed that defense."

Sounds like a metaphor for Austin's new team. Not half bad.


When: 12:30 p.m. PST Monday.

Where: Staples Center.

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 980, 1330.

Records: Celtics 13-25, Clippers 27-14.

Record vs. Celtics (2013-14): 2-0.

Update: Boston waived Chris Douglas-Roberts after acquiring him from the Clippers as part of the trade that brought Austin Rivers to Southern California. But the Celtics may hold onto another player the Clippers have interest in after permitting veteran forward Tayshaun Prince to practice with the team Sunday. Prince was recently acquired by the Celtics as part of the trade that sent Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies. Boston has lost four of its last five games and is 4-12 on the road.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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