State of the Clippers: Still not satisfied

No matter how many consecutive games his team wins or how much it dominates an opponent, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is never happy. But maybe that’s why he’s a coach.
 
Del Negro is always in search of the perfect game, and that means he’s looking for a perfect 48 minutes on defense. The Clippers have plenty of capable scorers, but in the NBA, games are often won with lockdown defense.
 
Their recently completed 3-0 trip through Memphis, Houston and Minnesota was a strong indication they’re continuing to improve on the defensive end. They held the Grizzlies to 30-percent shooting and fewer than 20 points in three of four quarters. Thursday night in Minnesota, the Timberwolves converted just 36 percent of their attempts and scored 14 points in the final period. The Clippers won 90-77, marking the second time in the three road games they held an opponent to fewer than 80 points.
 
“When we come out and execute offensively and defensively, it gives us a chance every single game,” forward Blake Griffin said recently. “Right now our thing is about winning games and getting good position for the playoffs and home-court advantage and all that.”
 
Del Negro’s insistence on defense isn’t just idle talk. When the Clippers lapse at that end of the court, they usually struggle. Their last loss, to the lowly Orlando Magic last Saturday at Staples Center, was a result of bad defense. The Magic, who are averaging just 95 points a game, scored 104 and shot 48 percent, including 44 percent from three-point range.
 
Last season, the Clippers ranked 18th in the league in defense. This season, they’re fourth, giving up an average of 93 points per game. They also lead in steals per game (10.51) and are seventh in blocked shots (6.26).
 
It’s doubtful Del Negro will ever be completely satisfied with his team’s defensive effort, but it’s one way he keeps them engaged during games, especially when they’re in the process of blowing out an opponent.
 
During a recent pregame session with the media, Del Negro rattled off a list of areas where he felt the team could improve – and that was during its franchise-record 17-game winning streak.
 
Among his gripes: rebounding, three-point defense and trust on defense.
 
“Sometimes when you win, as coaches, you still see mistakes and things that we have to get better at,” he said. “If you don’t improve, eventually it’s going to catch up to you. So it’s a never-ending process.”


On defense, it certainly is.
 
Who’s Hot: Jamal Crawford has been on sizzle all season, but he took on a greater scoring responsibility this week with point guard Chris Paul sidelined by a bruised knee. Crawford scored 16 points at Memphis, 30 at Houston and 22 at Minnesota. His impact on offense is best understood through this statistic: When he leads the Clippers in scoring, the team is 12-1.
 
Who’s Not: Tough to find a weak spot when the team is 31-9, but center DeAndre Jordan at times has been a non-contributor. He had three points against Minnesota but pulled down eight rebounds. Tuesday against Houston, he finished with nine points and four rebounds. The Clippers can live with his limited contributions now, but he’ll need to ramp it up down the stretch and in the playoffs.
 
Three Thoughts
 
1. With the trade deadline approaching, rumors are beginning to circulate regarding backup point guard Eric Bledsoe, who is already on several teams’ radars. Bledsoe’s quick hands, speed and overall athleticism make him a valuable asset, but why mess with team chemistry now? He’s being tutored by Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups and seems content with his role. That won’t last, but the Clippers would be foolish to listen to trade offers.

2. The Clippers will have two starters at next month’s NBA All-Star game, but shouldn’t Jamal Crawford join Paul and Blake Griffin in Houston? We think so. Crawford is averaging 16.7 points and is fourth in the league in total fourth-quarter points. He’s also the leading candidate for the league’s Sixth Man award. The last time a reserve player was picked to play in the game was 1998 when the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was voted in by fans. Crawford is deserving.

3. Griffin is one of the most athletic big men in the game, but it looks like he’s finally getting his foul shooting in order. Griffin has made 16 of his past 19 free throws after making 63 percent in the first month of the season. At this rate, he’ll prevent teams from fouling him late in games, which means more opportunities to score inside. As time goes on, Griffin is becoming a more complete player.
 
Quotes of the Week
 
“I think you can rely on Chris so much that with him out you’ve got to really get everybody involved and try not to put too much pressure on E-Bled. He’s done a great job of keeping the tempo at a pace where everybody’s moving and cutting and making it easy on himself as well as us.”
 
Caron Butler, on the emergence of Eric Bledsoe during the three-game absence of injured Chris Paul
 
“I haven’t seen all the teams but they do have talent. They have athleticism. They have a lot of stuff going for them. That’s why I said before the game that they’re the best team in the West, maybe the best team in the league right now.”
 
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, before the Clippers defeated Memphis by 26 points Monday night
 
What’s next?
 
The Clippers are an NBA-best 13-5 on the road (and 10-2 since Dec. 3), but they’ll continue to be tested. They play the horrid Washington Wizards at Staples Center on Saturday but then go back on the road for 11 of their next 13 games, including three back-to-backs.
 
Tower of Power?
 
It’s hard to argue that the Clippers aren’t the best team in the NBA – or at least the equal of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are a half-game better in the Western Conference at 31-8. When you win on the road as the Clippers have, it’s an impressive feat.