Ennui and excellence in L.A.

The Clippers don't look engaged in a quest for glory. Maybe that's just how they are built.

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

A critique of the Los Angeles Clippers that pops up now and then is the observation that they do not appear to care all that much as a team about what happens in any given game. This manifests as a lack of attention to detail, particularly on defense, or a lack of crispness and conviction on offense. It manifests as the team never getting too down over a loss or too high over a win. (Wins over desperate teams that the Clippers are trying to lose need not apply.) No one questions whether this is an excellent team, one capable and perhaps now destined to win the championship. But folks do question whether the Clippers know they are fighting for a championship.

I don’t really buy it.

There is plenty of evidence the Clippers to “get up” for big games — we saw against the Lakers and Bucks in the regular season (including the first game of the seeding phase) and when matters came to a head against the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers didn’t exactly meander through the regular season: including the seeding phase, L.A. finished with the No. 2 offense, No. 5 defense and No. 2 scoring margin. Lineups featuring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were +13 per 100 possessions in the regular season and are +9 in the playoffs.

Here are the factors that I think contribute to the idea of Clippers’ ennui:

  1. Kawhi is the quietest, least demonstrative superstar since Tim Duncan. I don’t think it’s all Kawhi, either. Sports media has always had trouble figuring out how to talk or what to say about Kawhi. So they don’t talk about him much. I mean, he orchestrated a coup of epic proportions for a Los Angeles-based franchise in direct opposition to a power play from ultra-famous LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook getting traded to join his friend James Harden overshadowed it within a week. There’s some magical chemistry between Kawhi’s lack of interest in fame and the media’s generalized lack of interest in talking about him. I would compare Kawhi to Mike Trout except I don’t know anything about Mike Trout, and I feel like baseball fans could say the same about Kawhi.

  2. Paul George is a classic No. 2 star who plays like it. He’s also an exceptionally smooth player with a fairly self-contained personality. The long-held idea before this season that Paul George was “underrated” was never true in the sense that he wasn’t rated fairly in what passes for actual rating systems. He had made six All-Star teams, five All-NBA teams, four All-Defense teams, won Most Improved — he was fairly rated! He was just never really talked about because he was a No. 2 star cast as a No. 1 star for a franchise no one really talks about much (until the Thunder trade, when he was overshadowed on the talk circuit by Westbrook partisanship and the Carmelo Anthony discourse).

  3. We put too much stock in several things about the Clippers. Depth is certainly one: Doc Rivers keeps trying to play a bunch of reserves together and go 10 deep. The reserves are individually good in their slots, but they aren’t better than the starters. And other teams are not digging so deep, so L.A.’s ninth man is going up against Denver’s sixth man, and the differential ain’t working out. Defense is another. Kawhi can lock people down and provide excellent help defense. Paul George locks people down. But there are a few defensive sieves on the team, and others (including Patrick Beverley) are no longer as effective as they were before refs started calling games the way they do now.

When I watch the Clippers, in many ways it feels like a prototypical Kawhi Leonard team, reminiscent of the 2019 Raptors and 2017 Spurs. The difference is the incredibly high expectations for this Clippers team, certainly higher than expectations for the Raptors last season and because of the lack of a Warriors-quality foil higher than the 2017 San Antonio squad. So we’re watching a little more closely, looking for the spark that shows us glory is in their grasp. And we’re not quite seeing it, even if it feels in some ways inevitable.

With this team, given these personalities and roster shortcomings, I’m not sure we’re meant to see it. This isn’t the 2015-19 Warriors, or the 1996-98 Chicago Bulls. This is a championship-caliber team led by the most puzzling, anonymous superstar of the past decade in the NBA. That’s all. Expecting more is probably expecting too much until they prove otherwise.

Check out this sick block, though.

Photo from Getty Images Sport.

Share

Scores

WNBA

Sun 85, Mercury 70 — Well, that’s one way for Phoenix to end its winning streak. DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas had monster games, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith didn’t have it.

NBA

Celtics 111, Raptors 89 (BOS leads 3-2) — Boston beat the brakes off Toronto, plain and simple. It looked like Game 1 all over again. The Raptors’ offense was awful and the C’s got into a good flow on offense. When it’s not working for Toronto it REALLY doesn’t work for Toronto. (They could still win the championship, though.)

Clippers 113, Nuggets 107 (LAC leads 2-1) — L.A. has no idea what to do with Nikola Jokic, similar to how they had no idea what to do with Luka Doncic. But Paul George had an excellent performance, Jamal Murray was off and L.A.’s defense really locked in when it needed to do so, despite Ivica Zuabac’s foul trouble and Montrezl Harrell’s lesser ability on that end of the floor.

Speaking of Montrezl Harrell on defense:

Michael Porter, Jr. is not in any way boring.

Schedule

All times Eastern.

Heat vs. Bucks, Game 5, 6:30 p.m., TNT (MIA leads 3-1) — No word on Giannis
Sparks vs. Liberty, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Lynx vs. Mystics, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Lakers vs. Rockets, Game 3, 9 p.m., TNT (Series tied 1-1)
Fever vs. Aces, 10 p.m., ESPN2

Links

David Thorpe on four incredible LeBron minutes from Game 2.

Duncan Robinson’s historic refusal to shoot twos.

The case for Myisha Hines-Allen as the WNBA Most Improved Player.

I’ve seen some jokes about LeBron telling the media that the bubble — which is at some nice hotels in Disney World — isn’t “kid-friendly.” I think this is an area where how LeBron James lives and how the rest of us live matters. When your parents have hundreds of millions of dollars, even a nice hotel is not better than home.

Should Giannis risk his long-term health in a desperation attempt to come back from down 3-0? Vincent Goodwill argues against it.

Robby Kalland ranks the ubiquitous 2020 NBA playoffs ads.

Be excellent to each other.