Three things: Clippers down the stretch

If any of his players want to find Clippers coach Doc Rivers this weekend, they’ll have to call any of several golf courses in Southern California. Rivers planned to spend his five-day break for the NBA All-Star game hitting drives and lining up putts.

Hot as they are, the Clippers could use a few days off. They had arguably the toughest schedule in the league over the first 3½ months, including two seven-game road trips, and they are finally enjoying a respite.

Everyone, that is, but Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, who are in New Orleans for the All-Star game and its surrounding festivities. The pair flew out of L.A. on Wednesday night after the Clippers’ 122-117 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, and Paul was up early the next morning for a league function.

It’s doubtful Griffin and Paul will return home energized, but their teammates should be rested and ready for a difficult stretch that starts next week: a Tuesday night home game against the San Antonio Spurs followed by a three-game trip with stops at Memphis, Oklahoma and New Orleans.

As they move toward the final stretch of the regular season, here are three words that will define their hopes leading to the playoffs:

HEALTH

Few teams (not including the Lakers) have been slowed by injuries as much as the Clippers. They’re still waiting for the return of shooting guard J.J. Redick, who is trying to overcome a sore hip after already missing 21 games because of a fracture in right hand and a torn ligament in his wrist.

So far this season, the Clippers have played just 16 games with their projected starting lineup of Paul, Redick, Griffin, center DeAndre Jordan and either Jared Dudley or Matt Barnes at small forward. They’ll need to get that group together at some point to be prepared for the postseason.

Most of all, they’ll have to keep Griffin, who has not missed a game, and Paul, who has played twice since missing five weeks because of a separated shoulder, on the floor. They’re the heart of the Clippers.

MVP

There’s little question that Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is the most likely candidate to wrest the league’s MVP award from LeBron James, but Griffin’s play this season has also been MVP quality.

Any doubters? Consider that when Paul was out for 18 games, Griffin stepped up as a scorer and passer, averaging 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He even became more vocal among his teammates.

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Griffin watchers know the 6-foot-10 forward has improved his outside shooting and free-throw accuracy, but Rivers marvels at his face-up game and passing. Those are things Griffin hadn’t fully demonstrated in the past, but he’s using them now as imposing weapons.

When they need him, Griffin is capable of carrying the team on his shoulders. That’s something MVPs do.

DEFENSE

The Clippers have been one of the NBA’s most prolific offensive teams this season, averaging 107 points to rank second in the league behind Portland. And while dunks and 3-point shooting are fun to watch, it’s defense that plays a larger role in close games.

Listen to Paul and Griffin talk after games and it’s defense they mention most often. It’s also what Rivers stresses in practice, insisting that shots go in and out, but consistent defense is what separate good teams from great teams.

The Clippers rank in the middle of the league in points allowed per game (100.6), but their improvement has been steady. They also allow opponents to shoot 44.3 percent from the field, good enough to rank seventh.

In the long run, their success will come down to how well they play defense.