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Clippers' depth is a puzzle Doc Rivers is trying to piece together

Clippers' depth is a puzzle Doc Rivers is trying to piece together
Clippers celebrate during a game against Oklahoma City Thunder. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

At his pregame news conference Sunday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers described his deep roster as both a luxury and a riddle to which he doesn’t yet have an answer.

“The good thing about our team is we have up to 11 guys that can be on the floor at the end of a game,” he said. “The bad thing about our team is we have up to 11 guys that can be on the floor at the end of the game.”

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His comments proved prescient.

Whereas Rivers stayed with a single lineup for long stretches during the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ first two games, he mixed and matched in the final minutes Sunday in a victory against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center to find the right personnel to best defend the Rockets at one end and score at the other.

“I don’t think I’ve had more debate on the sideline in my coaching career — and I’m not exaggerating — than [Sunday], trying to figure out the right defensive, offensive lineup to play,” Rivers said. “This was a tough one.”

It’s not expected to get any easier any time soon for Rivers, who acknowledged that he’s still feeling out his late-game substitution pattern because of the sheer number of options available.

Starting guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley offer dependably difficult perimeter defense. But reserve guards Lou Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have sparked the offense. Gilgeous-Alexander has impressed coaches with his willingness to guard anyone, including league most valuable player James Harden on Sunday. Danilo Gallinari scored 26 points in 26 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday but didn’t play in the fourth quarter. Two days later he was given the assignment of tracking Harden on the final play Sunday.

No one is sure who will play in the fourth quarter of a tight game night to night and so far, Rivers said, players have bought in despite the uncertainty of their crunch-time minutes.

“I just want to win, that’s the biggest thing,” forward Tobias Harris said. “[Sunday] opportunities came for different guys. I think that’s the great thing about our team. Different guys can make plays and we can feed off each other. That’s how it’s going to be done.”

The Clippers’ two victories came against teams missing an All-Star player. Oklahoma City was without the injured Russell Westbrook and Houston played without suspended point guard Chris Paul.

They could have altered the outcome and thus potentially changed the Clippers’ positive outlook entering their first trip. Forward Montrezl Harrell, for one, doesn’t care about such hypotheticals.

“It’s not up to us or anybody in this locker room who sits out on the other team,” Harrell said. “Look at us last year. We had the majority of our whole team injured, ain’t nobody feel sorry for us. So why should we feel sorry for anybody else? It’s not us. It’s not going to be us. We’re not worried what anybody else has to say, we’re not worried about how anybody feels about us.”

The New Orleans Pelicans, by contrast, will be at full strength Tuesday at Smoothie King Center.

Behind Anthony Davis, who is averaging 28.5 points and 13 rebounds, the Pelicans have posted the league’s best effective field-goal percentage and rebounding percentage and employed the third-fastest pace during blowouts of the Rockets and the Sacramento Kings.

“New Orleans is red hot right now,” guard Lou Williams said. “They're in a great groove.”

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VS. NEW ORLEANS

When: Tuesday 5 p.m. PDT.

On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 570, 1330.

Update: Sunday marked the first time that Gallinari and Harris each scored 20-plus points in a game for the Clippers. It also marked only the second time in Gallinari's Clippers career that he has scored 20 or more points in consecutive games.

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