Heart of a Flyin' Lion

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
11:06
AM ET
Han By Andrew Han
Special to ESPN.com
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Blake Griffin and Chris PaulJuan Ocampo/Getty ImagesBlake Griffin has taken off in Chris Paul's absence, and the Clippers are better off because of it.
The Clippers had just dispatched the Golden State Warriors, punctuated by an emphatic, one-handed follow slam by Blake Griffin that led the team’s TV crew to dub him the “Flyin’ Lion.” With the win, L.A. didn’t just take down two birds with one stone; it was more like five: The Clippers notched their 46th victory of the season, extended their win streak to nine (and then to 10 and 11 this weekend, tying the season high set by San Antonio and Portland), created some breathing room in a tense Pacific Division, maintained their narrow lead as the No. 3 seed in a Botox-tight playoff race and, of course, sent their interstate rivals home with a loss.

After Staples Center had mostly cleared out, Chris Paul worked quietly around the hardwood, raising shot after shot in front of surprised and excited fans who reveled in the impromptu shooting session. The order seemed random, but Paul moved with purpose: left elbow, right elbow, 3s from the wing, now from 18 feet, a couple of free throws. About 45 minutes later, Paul concluded by hoisting a few jumpers from the corner … about 3 feet behind the 3-point arc, out of bounds.

“During the game, you wouldn’t think, but I say it all the time: I struggle with confidence and things like that,” Paul, who shot 5-for-15 in the win, said later during his postgame press conference. “I just didn’t feel like I could throw it in the ocean, so I wanted to go shoot now.”

The consensus best point guard in the league, a perennial MVP candidate, sometimes struggles with confidence.

The Clippers are 13-2 since Paul’s return to the active roster from a shoulder injury, and the notions of how the team would adjust to their star guard have been easily quelled. His ability to facilitate largely remains unchanged, as his assist rate has improved slightly, and for all of his offensive genius, Paul’s return has coincided with an 8.2 points per 100 possessions improvement to the team’s defense. So, why reveal weakness?

The answer may be that Griffin has emerged from a cocoon these recent months without the star point guard. All the freedom and inspiration Griffin displayed his rookie year seems to have metamorphosed before Paul’s very eyes. And the clearest approval the point god could stamp on Blake is allowing him to fly. Griffin’s career-high usage rate of 29.6 in Paul’s absence has declined only 0.5 in the 15 games since CP’s return, a result of the now-commonplace sight of the power forward coordinating the fast break. Blake pushes the pace, and if nothing materializes, the ball goes back to Paul to execute effective and efficient half-court sets. Despite the Lob City moniker and flashy pyrotechnics, these Clippers had never been an up-tempo team. Chris Paul is a basketball pace car. He doesn’t have an internal clock so much as a metronome. But Griffin’s recent elevation has married the natural high-end speed of the team with Paul’s low-end torque.

And the results have been dramatic. Los Angeles has been blowing by the competition since the tandem reunited, with 112.4 points per 100 possessions, while yielding only 97.8 points. Extrapolated over the season, that would give the Clippers the best offense in the league and third-best defense.

Yet there is a distinct lack of satisfaction among the Clippers these days. Players take pride in hard work bearing fruit, wins continuing in succession. But there is an appreciation that best is the enemy of better. Under Vinny Del Negro last season, there was an anxious pursuit to recapture the magic of the Clippers’ perfect December. As the season wore on, the team would change defensive schemes on a game-to-game basis, searching for the optimum foil to an opponent on any given night. It’s the kind of mentality that doesn’t allow for improvement, doesn’t allow for mistakes. Either a plan is executed perfectly and success is achieved, or it isn’t and a new strategy is formulated.

The chase for perfection both crowded and suffocated the Clippers.

Nowadays, Doc Rivers finds faith in his strongside pressure defense. And unlike earlier in the season, when only the Clippers’ starters seemed comfortable on that end, the aftermarket arrivals of Glen Davis and Danny Granger have plugged season-long defensive holes. Neither Davis nor Granger will likely impact the team in a substantial way -- although Granger’s shooting outburst against the Warriors on Wednesday night offers some intrigue -- but their ability to rotate and help on defense provides trust on a variety of levels. The starting unit can sit on the sideline and recuperate without constant trepidation that the game will move out of reach. The injured players -- and there have been many this season -- can focus on recovering rather than rushing their rehab to help the team. And, of course, there is the trust on the court: Teammates know that the player behind them understands his function in the machine.

[+] EnlargeLos Angeles Clippers chart
Courtesy of Andrew Han
So what is the identity of these Clippers? Asking the players would be to tread on the old clichés of aspiring contenders: “We want to be defense-first. To hang our hat on the defensive end.” For fans, the Clippers are a dynamo offensive juggernaut, ready to ignite at any moment under the bright lights of the big stage. But considering the amount of attention paid to process this season, the Clippers’ identity may simply be to be better, a shift embodied by Griffin.

In nine seasons, Paul has always been the best player on his team. Griffin remained the final credit in player introductions when Paul arrived in Los Angeles three seasons ago, but these courtesies rang hollow. The team belonged to CP3. Paul would lead, Griffin would follow. And Griffin was forced to make adjustments much faster than expectations should have dictated. How often is the burden of title contention put upon a player still on his rookie contract?

But in the 18 games Paul has missed, Griffin has assumed the mantle of a contender, filling Paul’s annual seat in the “third-best player in the league” conversation. And Griffin has afforded the point guard the opportunity to analyze himself for possibly the first time since his knee injury in 2010. What can Paul do to validate the strides the team has made in his absence? The topic doesn’t revolve around what’s been accomplished or what the expectations are; it’s about getting better, a Griffin ethos.

In that sense, vestiges of Rivers’ “ubuntu” mantra have found their place in Los Angeles. The value of a team identity is unity of its parts to be more, no matter how individually brilliant those components may be.

To always be improving requires a candid appraisal of oneself. It’s tough to resolve weaknesses if you’re not honest about what they are. That’s a frightening proposition. Who isn’t squeamish when reflected their flaws? But the Clippers realize that being a contender is more than just looking the part. It’s also about facing all the deficiencies the process reveals and having the luxury to be self-critical.

"I'm just here to try to win. I want our guys to believe that. I want our organization to believe that. I want to act like that: a winner,” Rivers said. “And I always tell our players there's no guarantee to it. You just have to be willing to get your heart broke, and then you have a chance to win. And if you don't do that, then you can't win. I believe that. So that's basically it."

Andrew Han writes for ClipperBlog. Follow him, @andrewthehan.

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