MILWAUKEE – Before the music started booming inside the locker room, Chris Paul and Caron Butler spoke privately, soaked in the meaning of this 111-85 thrashing of the Bucks on Saturday night and gathered teammates together to gauge their focus. These two veterans reminded them about the highs and lows the season will bring and the importance of maintaining the team’s camaraderie.
This historic nine-game winning streak won’t last forever, Paul preached, and once it does end, that shouldn’t signal any finger pointing. For all the drama surrounding the Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers have been an under-the-radar success so far. They’re focused, prepared each night and exhibit the confidence that comes with last season’s playoff experience – a 17-6 record to show for it all.
Paul still understands how quickly a situation can change in the NBA, a ferocious surge capable of becoming a downward spiral. He knows the dangers that can arise with success, especially the room for complacency.
In a lot of ways, the Clippers haven’t even revealed their true identity. They will always go as far as Paul can lead them, but the depth of their roster has yet to take form. Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill elevated their training another notch on Sunday – Hill participating in more running drills as Billups slowly ramped up his activity – but no one around the Clippers wants to put a timetable on either player’s return.
Over the blasted music, over the Clippers’ record-setting ninth straight win, Vinny Del Negro talked about reasons they still have much more development left: Rebounding, maintaining focus, sharpening the defense.
So, are the Clippers an unfinished product, a team still searching for its identity?
“Oh yeah. No doubt,” Del Negro said in private outside his coach’s office. “We’ve got a long way to go.
“We have to continually build. With seven new players this year, we have a lot of growing to do. Hopefully [when] we get Chauncey and Grant back, we’ll be even deeper and stronger.”
Ask the Bucks, and the Clippers already looked strong enough on Saturday. Dunk after dunk, their self-proclaimed Lob City is a mesmerizing sight; whether it is a Blake Griffin reverse flush or a DeAndre Jordan one-handed slam in transition. Both Clippers big men played well under 30 minutes, yet still combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds – and eight dunks.
Nevertheless, the Clippers’ offense won’t be able to rely on this up-and-down, highlight-filled pace when the game slows down and teams try to bait them into half-court sets in the postseason. The Clippers appear to know this dunk fest of a style won’t fly if they want to advance past the second round, and it’s clear in the work Griffin continues to put forth on his jump shot and the growth Jordan has had on his low-post moves.
Paul will always be the man to direct the offense in the halfcourt, but with him there usually won’t be the explosion past someone. As Scott Skiles described Paul, he has a body thickness that opponents seemingly bounce off. Then there is Paul’s basketball genius and patience to the game that comes naturally.
He’ll need help, though, and that’s where the continued growths of Griffin and Jordan come in, along with the arrivals of Jamal Crawford and soon Billups and Hill. Matt Barnes has also injected the Clippers with tireless energy, dropping 21 points on just running the floor and spot-up shooting Saturday. For his part, Griffin has been shooting more jumpers than ever, attempting almost nine of his 14 field-goal attempts per game from outside. His ability to knock down mid-range jumpers is so critical to the Clippers’ spacing, so important in fully taking advantage of pick-and-roll sets with Paul.
“Blake works on it, he’s getting better and his shot release point is much better,” Del Negro told RealGM. “He’s getting more comfortable with it, so it opens up a lot of things for him because he’s so effective off the dribble.”
From Paul to Butler, Billups to Hill, Del Negro has substantial voices in the locker room. He’s the ultimate players coach, placing faith in his stars’ abilities to keep the focus from swerving.
“I don’t see [a let up] happening with the leadership that we have,” Del Negro said. “We’ve got good balance in the locker room.”
As Paul said later, “We do understand that at some point we will lose [the streak]. But as long as we don’t start pointing the finger, we’ll be OK. … It’s tough, because you forget how it feels to lose.”
Already, the Clippers have accomplished a streak that the franchise hasn’t had since the 1970s. Six out of nine victories on this run have come against losing teams, and with four more on the schedule before Dec. 25, the Clippers can very easily enter their Christmas Day game at home versus the Denver Nuggets on a 13-game tear.
Yet here were two veterans, Chris Paul and Caron Butler, going over the possibility of how swiftly this can all go the other direction. Nine consecutive wins, and the Clippers cemented themselves atop team history on Saturday. They’ve been left under the radar at times in the packed Western Conference, and around the team, they probably like it that way. At least until this unfulfilled product comes together as whole.