The Clippers’ recent defensive turnaround was so pronounced that coach Doc Rivers wasn’t ready to accept Monday’s defeat to Atlanta as anything other than a sign of lackluster effort.
“I’m not going to overreact," he said of the 123-118 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. "I didn’t think we were ready to play. Didn’t matter what defense or offense we were in.”
After ranking 20th in the NBA in defensive rating per 100 possessions during their five-game losing streak this month, the Clippers rebounded to rank third in the five games that followed. They were 4-1 during that stretch, which began Jan. 20 in San Antonio and finished with Sunday’s home victory against Sacramento.
Then came Monday’s loss, in which guard Avery Bradley felt the defense “definitely took a step back." The offense contributed, too, committing 16 turnovers that led to 23 points for the Hawks.
“But we can go back to the drawing board,” Bradley said. “We haven’t had a chance to practice in a while. That’ll be good for us.”
The loss ended the Clippers’ winning streak at three games.
What remains to be seen is how much, if at all, it sets back the defensive progress that preceded it.
One of Rivers’ biggest disappointments this season was that the team’s weakside defense had not played up to his expectations. When a Clippers defender was beaten off the dribble, it often set off a chain reaction of problems. Teammates were often slow to arrive with help, but if they did get there in time, it wasn’t always the case a teammate had slid over to cover their man.
“Help the helper,” guard Sindarius Thornwell said.
Rivers saw progress on that front during last week’s victories in San Antonio, Miami and Chicago, and credited guard Patrick Beverley — reinserted into a starting role — with “holding everyone accountable for not doing something defensively.”
“I think everybody just got back to doing their job and stopped worrying about the next person or the next play,” Thornwell said. “Instead of trying to look for answers for why somebody’s scoring we figured out within ourselves.
“If everybody on the weak side is locked in, it allows for the person on the ball to be a better defender. I think our weak side has gotten a lot better. We’re helping.”
What didn’t help Monday were the defensive rebounds that got away in the fourth quarter. Rebounding has long been a shortcoming of the defense, and playing 6-foot-8 center Montrezl Harrell the final 19 minutes kept the Clippers in a smaller lineup. When it came to the extended possessions Atlanta received on fourth-quarter offensive rebounds, Rivers pointed the finger at everybody, saying the rebounds were often long caroms that could have been grabbed by anybody, guards included.
“I guess we could have played other guys [at center] tonight but listen, I thought [Harrell] did good things overall,” Rivers said. “I just didn’t like our team tonight.”
Danilo Gallinari, who has sat out the last six games because of back spasms, said during a television interview that he could be out for another week.
“We're taking it day by day, but it's getting a lot better,” Gallinari said. “It's been already about 10 days now, so maybe a week, but we're going day by day."
Despite the absence of Gallinari, the team’s second-leading scorer, the Clippers (28-23) have won four of the six games he has sat out. They host the Lakers on Thursday in a matchup of the Western Conference’s eighth- and ninth-place teams before beginning a six-game trip, their longest this season, Saturday in Detroit.
Gallinari’s injury forced Rivers to shuffle lineups and the ripple effect has led starting point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to play with reserve-heavy lineups in spurts.
Since the Clippers’ first game without Gallinari, on Jan. 20, a lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Lou Williams, Mike Scott, Jerome Robinson and Harrell has played 11 minutes together over the course of two games. A lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams, Harrell, Robinson and Johnathan Motley played a five-minute stretch together.
Rivers sees value in those lineups in part because Gilgeous-Alexander takes pressure off Williams to initiate the offense. They also afford the rookie more opportunity during a month when playing time has decreased by two minutes from his season average.
“It gets him back on the floor,” Rivers said. “Listen, Shai is a scoring point guard, with that second unit it’s good. I think he and Lou have done pretty well together.”
Still, Gilgeous-Alexander continues to play the majority of his minutes with his fellow starters. The two starting lineups Rivers has used since Gallinari’s injury, both of which include Gilgeous-Alexander, have been used the most.