Several Clippers players met in August for an offseason retreat in Miami. More gathered in September at a Coliseum suite to watch the Rams. There have been private movie screenings in San Antonio on Thanksgiving and before Christmas, and too many road-trip dinners and hands of card games to count.
If building locker-room chemistry can be a tricky, fragile process, the Clippers say theirs developed quickly in the weeks before training camp. But as the midway point of the regular season nears, the full roster has gone deep-sea fishing together as many times as they have played a game — once.
For the Clippers, that lack of on-court experience has made their off-court bonding more valuable in hindsight.
“You know one another,” forward Paul George said, “you’re going to play better.”
Yet just as true is that some things can only be learned through play. It is a reminder, several Clippers said, that despite owning the Western Conference’s third-best record, offensive and defensive ratings that each rank among the league’s top seven and a jump-start on locker-room cohesion, they’re playing from behind in the area that matters most.
“We do need practice, we need time on the floor, we are at a deficit, the way I look at that,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Teams that have been together are already rolling and teams that are new, like the Lakers, and other teams had health and they’ve been able to work. I look at our team as a team that’s still trying to play catch-up.”
That catch-up has been caused by factors both expected and unexpected. Kawhi Leonard has missed nine games mostly because of a strategy to limit his workload on his left knee before the postseason. George, the Clippers’ other star offseason addition, didn’t return until mid-November while recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries. Given Leonard’s similar handling of the regular season last year, and George’s surgeries, those absences had been expected.
Along the way, however, injuries to forward JaMychal Green, point guard Patrick Beverley, guard Landry Shamet and guard Rodney McGruder have kept continuity at a minimum. Before the season, Rivers discussed using a “sliding” lineup whose mainstays, George and Leonard, would be surrounded by a rotating cast depending on the opponent. Instead, Rivers has spent the season’s first half juggling incomplete rotations, with the lone exception a full-strength victory on Christmas against the Lakers.
The practice that will continue Saturday when the Clippers play Memphis at Staples Center. Beverley (right wrist sprain) has been ruled out for his third consecutive game and George (left hamstring tightness) is doubtful to play, according to the team, which is hoping for relief ahead. After playing Saturday and Sunday, the Clippers don’t play again until Jan. 10.
“We haven’t practiced or had time to practice or go through things as a team much,” Shamet said. “That’s the challenge of the NBA. How do you get guys to jell without having that time to prep?”
The Clippers’ answer, so far, has been to carve out time whenever possible. In December, forward and cinema buff Patrick Patterson arranged a private screening of “Uncut Gems,” an event several on the team were still talking about the following day.
“Any time together is valuable,” Rivers said.
Added guard Jerome Robinson: “You get a sense of what type of person they are or how they kind of approach things or go about things, so it’s easier when it’s the fire of the game.”
While center Ivica Zubac learned in September that Leonard was funnier than his public persona suggested, it wasn’t until he played alongside him in October that he understood more vital information about the superstar.
“At first we just did pick and roll like we could do it and he would find me,” said Zubac, who has received 28 assists from Leonard this season, more than any other Clipper. “But after some time I realized where does he like those picks to be set? When does he want to play iso and when do I just stay back when they double him, where do I got to be, what position?
“Some things just happen naturally. But a lot of things I had to spend some time on the court with him to figure out what’s the best.”
Williams’ first son
Clippers guard Lou Williams awoke at 4:30 a.m. Dec. 31 to a ringing phone and missed calls. Soon, team security officers were banging on the door of his Sacramento hotel room.
“I understood,” Williams said, “what was happening.”
Back in Los Angeles, his girlfriend was going into labor.
“I just jumped in the Uber, headed to the airport and booked a flight in the car,” Williams said. “I got lucky it was a 6 a.m. flight so I was right back in L.A. by 7.”
By 1 p.m., his third child and first son, Syx, was born, more than a week before his due date. Both mother and son are “doing well,” Williams said. The name is a nod to Williams’ stature as the top-scoring reserve in NBA history and a three-time winner of the league’s sixth-man trophy.
“I just wanted to do something different,” he said. “Obviously, it’s just playing up to the sixth man thing.”
When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570
Update: Grizzlies guard Ja Morant has continued his impressive debut season. After being named the Western Conference’s top rookie for October/November, he earned the same honor for December. For the season Morant is averaging 17.6 points on 47% shooting, including nearly 41% shooting on three-pointers, 6.5 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 3.2 turnovers.