The new year provided a fresh start for the Clippers, though it had less to do with the calendar’s turning to 2017 than with an easier schedule that gave them a chance to recover from their 2016-closing six-game losing streak.
The Clippers played 17 games in December, seven of them in the final 10 days, and they were clearly dragging during a year-end trip to New Orleans, Houston and Oklahoma City, where they were outscored, 88-10, in transition.
The January schedule is more forgiving, with 12 games, three a week, and none outside California until Jan. 21. The Clippers opened the month with four straight wins entering Wednesday night’s game against Orlando.
“I feel like we’re catching our breath a little bit,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “Every team plays the same amount of games, but they can be staggered differently. You definitely feel it physically.”
Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged last week that the cluster of late-December games, combined with injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, was daunting.
“Sometimes players look at the schedule and see how hard it is, and they fall into that trap,” Rivers said. “We knew seven games in 10 days would be hard. We thought we’d be healthy, and we got caught with a double-whammy — a tough schedule, plus injuries.”
A defense that allowed an average of 110.5 points during the losing streak has tightened — the Clippers held opponents to an average of 96.5 points and 39.9% shooting in the first four games of January.
“We can score the basketball,” guard Raymond Felton said, “but I think our biggest thing is being consistent on defense every night, and being consistent in playing hard every night.”
Effort shouldn’t be an issue for highly paid, well-conditioned athletes, but travel and a grueling schedule can pose challenges.
“It’s a mental thing,” Felton said. “No matter what, you should try to play hard, but what a lot of people don’t understand is you have a lot of traveling … seven games in 10 nights, that’s a lot on your body. … We’re human. We do get tired.
“But it’s still our job. You have to perform. It’s like going to work every day. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’m gonna do a half-job because I’m tired.’ You have to try to find a way.”
In the flow
Austin Rivers started Wednesday night, confident his one-game absence because of flu-like symptoms would not throw off his shot. The guard, who missed Sunday’s win over Miami, averaged 17.9 points, including a season-high 28 against Memphis on Jan. 4, in his previous seven games.
“The good news is I only missed two days, so that’s not enough time to get out of rhythm,” Rivers said. “If anything, it probably helped me to get some rest.”
Doc Rivers said he had “never missed a practice in my career because I was sick” until Tuesday, but he was able to coach the team Wednesday night. … Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute said he was suffering from a cold but started against the Magic. … Forward Serge Ibaka, Orlando’s second-leading scorer at 15.6 points a game, sat out Wednesday night’s game because of a right shoulder injury.