(Photo by Jacob Gonzalez / Los Angeles Clippers)
During the first couple weeks of the season, things felt different around the Clippers. It was their sixth year as an expected playoff team and their fourth year as a contender. Things had calcified over time during the regular season, minimal roster changes made the 82 games between playoff disappointments feel like reruns. But this year things felt different. The offense was humming, not just because the players were talented and the pieces fit together well, but because a level of cohesion had been achieved that surpassed anything that had come before it. The ball whipped around the court with an arrogance that comes only with knowing intrinsically that everyone is where they’re supposed to be.
The Clippers looked dominant. Perhaps the bench was playing over their heads and perhaps the defense would come back to earth but the offensive success felt organic. This was the proper year to make a final stand. It was still the Clippers and Golden State had added Kevin Durant that off-season so the inevitability of playoff disappointment still hung about the team. But it felt like this was the right squad, if ever one existed, to go down fighting with.
And then the injuries came, as they’ve come every year, and suddenly it was all gone. As a team the Clippers have played the majority of the season since those early, healthy days with the trepidation of a burn victim doused in gasoline. Having been fully healthy for a couple weeks now, it has been easy to manufacture points through sheer talent but they’ve all been hard earned. Blake grinding through a post up, Chris Paul deflating the ball waiting for the flare, Austin Rivers chucking threes…ok some things didn’t change. But the cohesion was gone and the Clippers have been in a mad scramble to figure out who they are as the playoffs loom closer and home court advantage in the first round seems less and less likely.
Some of that desperation was evident to start this game as the Clippers made a concerted effort to run early and often. Blake Griffin looked especially eager to gain some traction by leading and finishing fast breaks. Griffin’s rhythm still feels a beat off with the team, the timing on some of his screens and passes happen a moment too soon or too late. But he seems to be getting more and more comfortable leveraging his raw power and skill to create successful possessions for himself. The bench helped grow the lead in the second quarter on the heels of Austin River’s 17 points (seven in the third) and held New York at bay long enough in the fourth quarter to give the starters some extended rest.
However, the Clippers didn’t seem to be completely on the same page for some of this game, as indecisiveness plagued a number of potential opportunities. Again it felt as though Griffin, usually a savant at making the right play the moment the defense shifts to adjust to his hulking presence in the paint, didn’t trust himself to make the pass or his teammates to be where they needed to be to pull the trigger. But it was against the Knicks, who give every team two and a half quarters to work out the kinks before really making anyone sweat. Overall the Clips played well, especially Griffin who chipped in 30 points off 12-19 from the field. The Clippers play the Lakers tomorrow and Dallas on Thursday before meeting Utah again at home in a game that will have as much playoff atmosphere as this team is going to get before April. It’s hard to know what Clipper team will show up or what a dominant performance or another heartbreak ultimately says about them going into their sixth straight postseason.
Its difficult to envision a scenario where the Clippers enter the playoffs in the world-beater shape they looked to begin the year. Perhaps that version of this team was always an illusion and this crisis of identity would’ve borne out one way or another during the slog of an NBA regular season. Either way, time’s running out. The answer may not be ideal, but one way or another this team is going to figure out who they really are.