In 21 seasons coaching in the NBA, Doc Rivers has never seen anything like the routine that has taken hold in recent weeks with the Clippers.
While Rivers meets with coaches on the second floor of the team’s practice facility, a player-led film study takes place a floor below.
A video coordinator watching the players’ sessions edits clips whenever a play warrants further explanation from coaches. When it’s over, Rivers receives a compilation of plays that have stumped his roster and, in the process, something even more valuable.
“I can see what they’re thinking,” he said. “I don’t know who came up with it, but it’s been good for me.
“I question why I haven’t done it before.”
The process has been illuminating to a point.
When the Clippers have watched video, rarely have they seen the fully realized version of the roster they built last summer, when star forwards Paul George and Kawhi Leonard joined one of the league’s deepest rotations to create an overnight championship contender.
Monday’s 124-97 rout of Memphis was only the fifth time the Clippers have played with a full roster this season and the first time since starting forward Marcus Morris and backup point guard Reggie Jackson were acquired this month. The wire-to-wire rout offered a glimpse of that top-end potential in resounding fashion. The full-strength Clippers (38-19) ripped the ball from the Grizzlies’ grips, dunked on their heads and led by 26 — and that was just during the first 12 minutes of what amounted to a payback game, seven weeks after the Grizzlies embarrassed the Clippers by 26 on their home court.
“This is what we talked about, this is what we dreamed of when this all came together,” said George, who returned after missing six previous quarters because he reinjured a hamstring he first hurt in early January. “This is the squad and the team that we thought we would be.”
What the game was not, however, was a guarantee of anything when it comes to the team’s banner-raising expectations, and the team’s leaders know it.
“I think at this point, we have a great mind-set, we have a great approach,” George said. “If we’re serious about this, we gotta show it. We gotta show it and start to work toward this now. And coach made a great comment of turning it on and thinking we can late in the season — we gotta do it now. There’s gotta be some steps that we take if we’re serious about our journey down the end of this year.”
Of anyone on the roster, Leonard knows best what it takes to complete that journey. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs he won a championship with posted a league-best 24-5 record after the All-Star break. Last year’s Toronto Raptors were 15-8 after the break.
Like his teammates, Leonard was encouraged by Monday. Now he wants to see more like it.
“I don’t think you can really say what you can see from a team in one game,” Leonard said. “You have to see consistency. Obviously even before winning, we knew what we could do when we were healthy and that’s what it’s about. We’re talented, we got a good group of players so it’s just about going out there and making sure we’re doing the work and that’s it.
“... We’re not low on ourselves going into the game or things like that, so still a confident group. We still want to improve and that’s our mind-set, just to keep building to try to be the best team we can be when that time comes in the playoffs.”
Before tipoff Monday, Rivers pushed back on a notion that his team was idling dangerously until the postseason, saying there was a difference between teams healthy but unwilling to play hard and those unable to because of injuries.
“Anyone who says that,” he said of being a “flip-the-switch” team, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
He added, after the victory: “Depth doesn’t work if everyone’s not healthy.”
While injuries largely have been outside the Clippers’ control, players at times have acknowledged inconsistencies in other aspects that are within control, from their first-quarter intensity to their communication defensively. All of which raises the stakes on the regular season’s final 25 games. The Clippers aren’t just hoping to recapture a lost rhythm from earlier this season, they’re attempting to build it for the first time with little left before the postseason.
Finding it is paramount, Leonard said. In his nine NBA seasons, he’s never seen a team without consistency in the regular season suddenly find it come the playoffs.
“I don’t think you can play basketball or win a championship like that,” he said. “Watching teams win, playing in the regular season I don’t think those teams really flipped the switch going into the game, saying we’re going to play hard today, next game not play hard.
“It’s pretty consistent. Human nature allows you sometimes to go out and not be the person you are in games or the same team, Things like that happen but I don’t think any team won the championship that said, ‘Oh we’re just going to win in the playoffs.’”
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Update: Phoenix (24-34) has won two straight games since returning from the All-Star break, with the latest a 20-point rout Monday of Utah. Point guard Ricky Rubio’s 17.3% assist rate off of drives is the highest in the NBA this season — LeBron James is second — and he’s often looking for teammate Devin Booker. Booker, an All-Star for the first time this season, ranks ninth in the NBA with 28.0 points per game since Jan. 1.