Clippers guard Patrick Beverley was silent for nine seconds Tuesday night while considering the question.
The team’s defense has gone from stingy to shredded. What has changed?
“That’s a hell of a question,” he said, finally. “That’s a very good question.”
In their six games since a Nov. 29 win at Sacramento, the Clippers (17-10) have tumbled down the league’s defensive rankings. They’ve gone from first in overall effective field-goal percentage allowed through their first 21 games to 24th since; fourth to 20th in defending catch-and-shoot attempts; fifth to 23rd on pull-ups and sixth to 20th on attempts from 10 feet or closer.
“A little bit, because it’s not working like it was working in the beginning,” forward Danilo Gallinari said. “I think it’s more mental and energy. We need to bring more like we used to bring.”
The Clippers envisioned their defense this season to be emblematic of the team’s identity as a whole — hard-nosed and harassing, constructed around such marquee defenders as Beverley, Avery Bradley and Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute hasn’t played since Oct. 23, but as the Clippers have lost four of their last six games, their defense as a whole has been MIA for long stretches.
No team can be expected to “bring it every night,” Gallinari said. Indeed, Tuesday’s matchup, a 123-99 defeat to Toronto, was always going to be difficult. The Raptors owns the league’s best record, and the Clippers had played the night before in a game that went to overtime.
Yet, even an offense like Miami’s, which entered its matchup with the Clippers last Saturday with the NBA’s fourth-worst rating, found success in a 121-98 win. The Heat’s offensive rating that night was the second-best of its previous month. When the Clippers faced short-handed Phoenix two nights later, the Suns shot their highest field-goal percentage in eight games.
Technical fixes can mitigate some of the issues. Though opponents aren’t necessarily getting a free pass to the basket, attempting only a few more attempts a game in both the restricted area and paint, they have made a higher percentage of their shots once there.
Perhaps more troubling for a team that prides itself on outworking all comers is that effort was also cited as a reason for the recent slide.
“I think it’s just all about just the effort, you know what I’m saying?” center Marcin Gortat said. “I’m not going to use the saying ‘cocky’ but we kind of, we start winning games at the beginning of the season and people start feeling too comfortable for a bit. They forgot the season is [82 games] and we got to come back to being humble.
“We’ve got to come back to work hard and compete every minute, every possession of the game. Like I said, we are not pushing the panic button. At the end of the day we have to play better. I think we have a very good team, we just have to get back to being the little dogs that gotta fight hard and compete.”
Beverley disputed the notion that the Clippers’ edge has been blunted, pointing to a fourth-quarter comeback against Phoenix that has left them 4-0 in overtime games this season.
But he allowed that a team that “applied the pressure and applied the punches” as an underdog has eased into games since racing to the top of the standings.
“People understand our success and they’re coming out ready, throwing the first punch,” Beverley said. “We’re not that good, not now, not right now, but we can be. We came out early in the year under the radar and applied the pressure and applied the punches and that’s what we have to start doing. And we will, we will.
“Let’s not get it twisted, we’re still one of the top teams in the NBA. We’re still one of the top teams in the Western Conference, we’re in the best conference in the NBA. We’re not going to let a couple losses [make us] forget who we are.”
AT SAN ANTONIO
When: Thursday, 5:30 p.m. PST.
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570, 1330.