CLIPPERS

Struggling Los Angeles Clippers are still searching for an identity

You can be forgiven for feeling as if you don't yet know the Clippers.

Sixty-nine games into the season, amid flying fists and a sidelined superstar, the Clippers remain harder to read than a doctor's handwriting on a prescription slip.

Are they the team that won 25 of its first 34 games after Blake Griffin was sidelined, learning to play small and move the ball?

Are they the team that routinely crumbled in the final minutes of games against top teams, one memorable comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder notwithstanding?

They certainly hope they're not the team that failed to show up last weekend. The Clippers couldn't beat the severely undermanned Memphis Grizzlies or New Orleans Pelicans, letting the likes of Ray McCallum and Luke Babbitt upstage them during two cut-and-paste losses.

It felt like more than a bad stretch that could be quickly dismissed after the Clippers lost for the fourth time in five games, particularly when shooting guard J.J. Redick acknowledged that the team's issues transcended the usual late-season doldrums.

"We've fought the whole year, and I don't think it's energy, I don't think it's fatigue," Redick said Sunday after the Clippers' 109-105 loss to the Pelicans. "It's just the spirit's not right."

The Clippers have always been comforted by the thought of rounding into form for the playoffs upon Griffin's return, but the calendar is no longer an ally. Only 13 regular-season games remain, meaning that even if Griffin were cleared to start practicing this week and begin serving his four-game suspension for punching team assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, he would be left with only a handful of games to prepare for the ones that really count.

Griffin's quadriceps injury has proven more bothersome than his broken hand because the quad has been a continuing source of discomfort nearly three months since he last played on Dec. 25. But Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said there were no regrets about Griffin's not having undergone surgery to repair his partially torn quadriceps.

Griffin's status isn't the only nagging concern.

The Clippers must also confront the possibility that they are mentally soft. They have not been dominant at home. They have lost fourth-quarter leads against the Golden State Warriors (twice), San Antonio Spurs and the Thunder, the top contenders in the Western Conference. And they have not handled lesser opponents with ease.

At least in the playoffs the Clippers won't see the sort of teams they staggered against over the weekend.

Wait, what? Never mind.

The short-handed Grizzlies probably will be the Clippers' opponent in the first round barring a total collapse over the next three weeks. That means the Clippers will need to play with an edge against a team that will be playing without center Marc Gasol, who is sidelined because of a broken foot.

"We've got to stop playing with these teams that we should beat," Clippers guard Austin Rivers said. "I think sometimes our focus is less when we play a team like we did [Sunday]. We're not in any position to judge anybody."

It wasn't a good sign when the Pelicans' Omer Asik, hardly one of the NBA's top centers, outrebounded the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, 14-9. It also marked the first time this season that Jordan notched single digits in rebounding in consecutive games.

Jordan said the Clippers' problems were all-encompassing after a five-game stretch in which they have given up an average of 110 points a game. "Play defense. Play better offense, share the ball," he said.

The second unit has struggled since Austin Rivers returned this month after being sidelined because of a broken hand, largely settling for jump shots and failing to defend consistently.

Of course, the entire roster seems to be going through something of an identity crisis.

"We should know who we are but obviously we're not [whole] yet," Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. "We're working Austin back in and then we're going to have to work Blake back in. A little disjointed right now, but we'll figure it out. We'll figure out the kinks."

Doc Rivers and point guard Chris Paul seemed oddly upbeat on their way out of the Smoothie King Center on Sunday night given what had transpired over the previous 24 hours against the Grizzlies and Pelicans.

Maybe Paul had found the silver lining in an increasingly tarnished season.

"Luckily," Paul said, "right now we're still at the point where there's still another game."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 22, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Still looking for an identity - It's hard to get a bead on the Clippers, whose recent struggles have raised concerns." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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