Seventy-seven games and a Pacific division title into this season and Clippers Coach Doc Rivers is still learning about who and what he has — and how far this team might go.
He knows tendencies and traits from watching slumps and hot streaks. He has collected cold, hard facts by observing players' reactions to adversity and good times.
The picture is becoming clearer for Rivers, but it still wasn't complete after a late push by the Clippers fell agonizingly short in a 113-107 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday at Staples Center.
Rivers knows his team has resilience, as evidenced by its near-rally from a double-digit deficit on the second night of a back-to-back sequence.
He knows how fierce a competitor Chris Paul is, a trait that's admirable but could also be physically dangerous for a small guard. He knows Blake Griffin dislikes coming out of games, DeAndre Jordan "doesn't ever look like he's tired," and unlike the veteran Celtics teams Rivers coached, the generally young Clippers get upset when he tells them it's time to take a rest.
"With the team in Boston, Kevin would give you a hug when you took him out of a game," Rivers said of Kevin Garnett.
But Rivers isn't coaching the Celtics anymore. He and the Clippers have no collective playoff memories to use as a cautionary tale — or a rallying cry — when postseason play begins.
The Clippers are still determining who they will be when they grow up. Their loss to Dallas on Thursday, only their third in their last 20 games, left some blanks for Rivers to fill in.
Shooting guard J.J. Redick returned after missing 25 games because of a bulging disk in his back and played 23 minutes, a much-needed contribution off the bench. He reappeared not long after Rivers acknowledged guard Jamal Crawford (sore Achilles' tendon) and forward Danny Granger (strained left hamstring) might not return until the playoffs.
But his 12 points were the Clippers' only bench scoring until Glen Davis hit a pair of jumpers early in the fourth quarter, and that must be a huge concern. As much as Rivers might want to rest his starters, there might be times he simply can't.
Rivers said it was important for Redick to return before the playoffs. "I want to see what he can do," Rivers said.
That's a recurring theme as the Clippers' voyage of discovery continues.
"I think I know who we are for the most part. I know how we play. I still don't know how we'll handle the playoffs. That's a whole other beast," Rivers said before Thursday's game. "So that could be the answer. But I think I know. I think we're up for the challenge, is what I'm saying. But you don't know it until you get into it.
"The best part about these 82 games — here's your answer — is I think our guys now believe if bad things happen, you can still win. And as far as the game's not being played the way we thought it would be played, guys get injured, I think our guys still think we'll find a way to win.
"And I think that's something that's important going into the playoffs because that's the objective — to win that game, and I think we have finally figured out that every game is an individual game and I think they do a good job of doing that."
The Clippers, who overcame a 17-point deficit to win at Phoenix on Wednesday, almost duplicated that against Dallas but couldn't hold on. Griffin recorded his fourth career triple-double with 25 points, 10 rebounds and a team-leading 11 assists in addition to displaying a couple of slick spin-and-dribble moves. In the final seconds, though, he slipped to one knee and pounded the floor in frustration before walking off under his own power.
There are a lot of good things about the Clippers. There are also a few things missing, most noticeably consistency on defense. The Clippers were helpless against a 10-0 Mavericks run midway through the fourth quarter, when Dirk Nowitzki revived long enough to hit two three-pointers.
They might have an idea of who and what they are but don't yet know what they can become.
"I have no winning history here and so I tell our guys that all the time — it's all of us together," Rivers said. "It's not one guy that needs to win. It's the entire team needs to win, because none of us have won together. And that's how we have to think of this."
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