The only similarity between now and 2008 for Doc Rivers is the star power. That Celtics team, like these Clippers, suddenly emerged as championship favorites after being put together through blockbuster trades.
But while the 2008 Celtics were the model of stability — mostly healthy, quickly cohesive and veteran laden — these Clippers have experienced constant change because of Kawhi Leonard’s load management, Paul George’s shoulder injury and a trade-deadline deal that brought former Celtic Marcus Morris.
So more than halfway into the season, the Los Angeles Clippers are still a team trying to find itself. The moment they appear title contenders they suffer a mysterious loss. Yet, they have beaten the Lakers twice and can be dominant when Leonard, George and the complements are meshing.
“It’s been different because the ’08 team had great health early,” Rivers said prior to the Celtics-Clippers matchup. “We had a training camp together. We really had no injuries early and we were really allowed to get our continuity out of the gates.
“This team we haven’t had that ability. Our training, we didn’t have Kawhi or PG. We didn’t have PG for preseason and Kawhi played only two preseason games. And then PG missed the first 12 games and then the day he came back was the day Kawhi hurt his knee. So it was just bad timing. So we haven’t had that luxury. This is more doing it on the fly than that group.”
After Thursday’s 141-133 loss to the Celtics, the Clippers have a 37-18 record but are 5 games behind the rival Lakers for first place in the Western Conference and are just 15-13 on the road. It’s not that the Clippers have underachieved but with Leonard and George teaming up with Lou Williams and sparkplug Montrezl Harrell, the expectation was they would be better at this point.
Leonard is an All-Star and eighth in the league in scoring at 27.1 points per game. He is one of the league’s more dominant players, when he’s on the floor. He has already missed 13 games because of load management for various injuries and the hope he’ll be fresh come playoff time and able to lead the Clippers on a similar Raptors-like run as he did last season.
“They’re younger when we got them and that helps in some ways,” Rivers said when asked about acquiring Leonard and George compared with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. “Kawhi is not outward like Kevin but there’s a lot of Kevin in him as far as how serious he approaches the game, sees the game, prepares for the game. That is very similar. PG, watching him shoot and work reminds you of Ray in that way. He takes a lot of shots. Ray would take 100, 200 more shots than anyone in the gym and I would always think how could anybody be better than Ray if he’s already a better shooter and he’s still taking more practice shots. It makes no sense to me.”
George has been limited to 33 games because of various injuries and did not make the All-Star Team because of those missed games.
Injuries have been the coherent theme for the Clippers. The club’s decision to rest Leonard on back-to-back sets and during other selected games has affect the team’s ability to gel.
The hope is the acquisition of Morris, which cost them former BC guard Jerome Robinson, can add another reliable scorer, staunch defender and nasty attitude in a locker room filled with them.
“I like the fit,” Rivers said. “He fits our DNA. He brings his own sort of toughness with him. Shoots the three extremely well, stretches the floor. He just gives us another really skilled, good basketball player. That will help.”
As for the rivalry with the Lakers, Rivers reiterates the toughness of the entire Western Conference, although a Lakers-Clippers conference finals series would be perhaps the most compelling playoff series in a decade.
“Everyone talks about (the Lakers) every day so you kind of have no choice (but to think about them),” Rivers said. “The West is big and they’re just part of it. There is obviously this natural thing because we’re in the same city. A lot of people will pick either one of us out of our conference but there’s a lot of other teams that have a lot to say about that.
“I’m really more focused on us. We haven’t played enough games ourselves to worry about anyone right now.”
Rivers has coached really porous teams in Boston and championship caliber clubs. He wouldn’t say it’s tougher to coach a team with talent and high expectations, but he realizes the pressure is on to win this season.
“Both are sometimes easy to coach and sometimes hard. It really depends on the guys. If the guys are cooperating with you and each other, it’s not that hard,” he said. “This has not been a hard team to coach at all because they all kind of get along. What have been hard for us is we haven’t had a lot of time together.”