When the rim looks like the size of a Hula-Hoop, the way it did Monday against Memphis, it’s hard to learn a lot about a team. Sure, blowouts are nice, but when shots are falling, everything is easier.
Passes are crisper, legs feel fresher, rotations are tighter. Seeing the ball go through the basket can make a team feel invincible everywhere on the court.
And on nights when that rim shrinks, when it feels more like a fixed carnival game than a regulation basket, all those things can happen in opposite — and for a few minutes Wednesday in Phoenix, they started to.
But armed with a healthy roster full of high IQ veterans and the seedlings of continuity, the Clippers walked away from the complacency bricked jumpers can cause and toward a grit-it-out 102-92 win against the Suns.
“Fact of the matter is, that’s how should be winning games, on the defensive end, regardless if shots go in or if shots don’t,” Clippers wing Paul George said. “It’s just how we should win games. Period. We’ve got the group DNA, we’ve got the pieces and we’re a defensive-minded team.
“Regardless, that’s how a game should be won for us.”
For the Clippers, now back at full strength, it’s two-straight games holding opponents under 100 points after the team had kept opponents in double digits only three times since the start of 2020. Part of it are games against a beat-up Memphis team that was down two of its best frontcourt playoffs and the Suns who are sub-.500 and missing a starter. But part of it is also maybe the beginning of the Clippers actualizing their defensive potential on a regular basis.
Wednesday, the Clippers, other than Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley, couldn’t find any flow offensively in the first quarter, with the duo responsible for 17 of the Clippers’ 21 points. In those moments, Clippers coach Doc Rivers saw the effects of missed shots start to build.
“I thought we got great shots early — like wide open shots — and we just missed them all,” Rivers said. “And I actually thought it took our spirit away for four or five minutes defensively. Then, I thought we caught ourselves.”
The Clippers dug in defensively in the second and third quarters, outscoring Phoenix 55-37 in the second and third quarters.
And while things offensively never fully smoothed out, the newest additions to the Clippers’ depth made an impact.
Marcus Morris, playing in his sixth game since being acquired from New York, hit four three-pointers on his way to 18 points. And Reggie Jackson, in just his third game with the Clippers, added 12 in 16 minutes off the bench.
Leonard led the Clippers with 24 points.
“We’ve been saying it — [it’s] just being healthy for us all to get a rhythm with one another, all of us knowing each other’s game and veteran guys being in there who have been there before,” Leonard said. “They pretty much know other guys’ games once they’re playing and it’s a big help.”
The offensive balance has also allowed Rivers to unleash Leonard earlier, using him on Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker while putting George on Phoenix point guard Ricky Rubio.
Booker scored only 14 points, just the sixth time this season he’s been held under 15.
And Rubio committed seven turnovers, one less than his season high.
A bigger test awaits the Clippers on Friday at Staples Center from the Denver Nuggets, a game ahead of the Clippers for the No.2 spot in the Western Conference. Being back home, maybe it’ll be one of those games where all the shots are falling, where it feels as if they’re tossing a cough drop into a trash can.
Or maybe it’ll feel like Wednesday, when the Clippers had to assert themselves defensively to grind out a win. The Clippers know they should be capable of either.
“We know who we are,” George said. “Now it’s just building towards something great.”