Basketball tweeps have lately revelled in trolling the Lakers with an incisive hashtag: #thisiswhoyouarenow.
Struggling to eek out a road win against a lottery team? This is who you are now. Star players bickering at each other after a tough loss? This is who you are now. Thrilled to creep over .500 and sneak into the playoffs? This is who you are now. It’s all snark and dismissal, but it works because there’s a kernel of truth to it: Mediocrity’s a bitter pill after three straight decades of (mostly) sustained excellence.
Meanwhile, the 2013 Clippers have enjoyed a level of success heretofore unknown. They don’t just beat bad teams, they obliterate them. They’re mainstays on SportsCenter’s Top Plays. They’re poised to finish with the best road- and overall records in franchise history. And for the first time since moving to L.A., they’re guaranteed to post consecutive winning seasons. And yet.
No longer are the Clippers contending with San Antonio and Oklahoma City for the top spot in the West, like they seemed to be before the All Star break. Instead they’re fighting to keep pace with Memphis and Denver, two teams that are surging while the Clippers sputter. After L.A.’s 96-85 home loss to the Grizzlies Wednesday, I have to ask:
Is this who you are now?
Sure, the Clippers have won 11 of their last 16 games, which is a respectable if not elite clip. What’s troubling, though, is who’s beating them: Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Denver, and now Memphis. The concern is not that the Clippers can’t beat these teams — they lead the season series against the Spurs and Grizzlies and are tied with Miami. It’s just bad timing. Once you reach springtime in the NBA, as Kevin Arnovitz wrote in his column on the line between elite an excellent, “the range of possibility narrows, and the road becomes better lit. The doubt that results from big home losses is more dangerous because identities are harder to shake when March and April arrive.”
The operative word here is identity. Springtime quests of self-discovery are fine for lottery teams and quirky indie comedies, but by now contenders ought to know who they are and what they do. Memphis, for instance, distills its identity into three hyphenated syllables: grit-n-grind. We saw it the other night with every Zach Randolph-Blake Griffin turf war and every time Marc Gasol blew up a 1-4 pick-and-roll. (Denver, too, has an identity; it’s an imperative that starts with “r” and rhymes with fun.) Sure, the Clippers missed Caron Butler’s floor spacing and Eric Bledsoe’s ball pressure against Memphis, but — cliché alert — great teams are measured by how they face adversity.
So who are the Clippers? Well, they’re Lob City, sure, but lobs are an outcome, not a method. And as L.A. has slipped from a top-five to a top-10 team in both defensive and offensive efficiency, they’ve found it harder to compete against the cream of the NBA crop. The Clippers are annihilating bad, mediocre, and even decent teams most nights, but with a half-court offense that’s alternately brilliant and capable of disappearing completely, it’s tough to know what you’ll see on any given outing against the sorts of opponents they’re likely to meet in the postseason.
During Wednesday’s CBL, D.J. Foster pointed to the Clippers’ body language as cause for concern. Granted, D.J. conceded, body language isn’t something you can quantify. But you can quantify Blake Griffin’s zero first-half rebounds. Same goes for the Clippers’ five total steals, which is half their nightly average and just not enough considering they score more points off turnovers than anyone else in the league. Of greater concern is the disparity in three-point shooting during those five recent losses to Miami, OKC, San Antonio, Denver, and Memphis: the victors drained 47 out of 100 threes; the Clippers made only 34 of 104 (32.6 percent).
I wrote last week that these two remaining games against the Grizzlies would be the most important regular season match-ups of the Clippers’ season. After Wednesday’s loss, the series is up for grabs, and that April 13 evening at FedEx Forum is looking all the more ominous.
For better or for worse, we’ll have a pretty good idea who they are by then.