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The Daily Clipper — Are They Contenders? Edition

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In the past week or so, the Clippers have finally started to gain consideration as a contending team in the Western Conference. In today's Daily Clipper, we'll take a look at some of the pieces highlighting this change in the zeitgeist.

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We'll begin with a glowing piece from Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley, who points out that in spite of their lack of regard as a contender, the Clippers still check off every box on the checklist of a team with serious championship aspirations. The title is excellent, too: "Meet the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's Forgotten Contender".

It was only last fall that the Los Angeles Clippers loomed large as a trendy NBA championship pick.

But it feels like an eternity with the 180-degree turn the public has taken since. Somehow, a star-studded squad with a decorated coach in one of the world's premier media markets has nearly disappeared from basketball's radar.

This logic-defying ride transformed a preseason favorite into an overlooked, overqualified postseason sleeper.

But you won't hear that talk outside the organization. It's hard hearing anything over those alarm sirens that are unnecessarily blaring. Teams of this ilk are typically lavished with praise. For one reason or another, hoop heads have decided they are unwilling to look past the Clippers' faults.

SB Nation's Tim Cato had a similar take on the team, pointing out how they've gone unnoticed since the All-Star Break despite posting stellar results in that time period.

The Clippers' formula isn't all that complex: put the NBA's best passer (Chris Paul) at point guard, place the NBA's best rebounder (DeAndre Jordan) at center, add a wildly athletic big man with scoring touch (Blake Griffin), mix in a few shooters on the wings and let them play ball.

It's a strategy that has quietly worked to perfection this season. Despite injuries to key players, Los Angeles is only a game and a half out of third place in the Western Conference, boasting the NBA's second-best net rating, and are the only team in the top six in offensive and defensive ratings since the all-star break.

In his Sunday Shootaround detailing the remarkable success of the Warriors, Paul Flannery also took a little time to outline the threats they might face in the postseason.

Dare I say, the Clippers? Few teams have L.A.’s resume, with an offense to match Golden State’s, a proven playoff coach and a pair of superstars. And yet, it seems that few people are taking the Clippers seriously, mainly because of their shaky depth. You can bet the Warriors have a different appreciation for their long-time antagonists. These two teams have an antagonistic history and the Clippers did take a seven-game series from the Dubs last season.

The excellent John Schuhmann is slightly more negative, examining the Clippers' defense and using statistical and video analysis to point out some of their flaws. While he doesn't mention how the team has been third on that end since the All-Star Break, his concerns are stil valid and well-argued. The whole piece is definitely worth a read.

The 3-point defense had nowhere to go but down after ranking No. 1 last season, and it's been better (fewer attempts) since the All-Star break. The free throws continue to be a problem. The Clippers have given up 19.2 points per game at the free throw line, 2.0 more than the league average. Take away those two points per game and they're a top-10 defense.

This scheme usually takes the ball out of the ball-handler's hands. Opposing ball-handler's have passed the ball on 68 percent of ball screens that the Clippers have defended, the highest rate in the league, according to SportVU.

But the scheme, in turn, puts pressure on the Clippers' wings, who have to help on the opposing big when he rolls to the basket. And if he catches the ball, those wings are often in a position to do nothing but foul or concede a layup. If the ball doesn't go to the roll man, that guy who was helping on the roll now has to close out on the perimeter to both contest a shot and contain a drive. And if the drive isn't contained, the pressure goes back to the bigs to defend both the driver and his own man.

Other teams employ a similar scheme. The Miami Heat often suffocated their opponents with it when they had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wings. But when the Heat's defense wasn't on point, it could be broken down by teams that passed the ball well (see Spurs, San Antonio).

The Clippers don't have James or Wade. They have J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers trying to help on those rolls, recover out to those shooters, and contain those drives. And those guys aren't quick enough or disciplined enough to do all that on a high level and on a consistent basis.

The opponents' free throw rate has been highest with the Clippers' reserves on the floor. When it comes to both the opponent free throw rate and overall defense, there's a big gap drop-off when at least one of their starters takes a seat.

The Clippers themselves are geared into championship mode, currently playing with superb focus and effort on both ends of the floor.

When the Los Angeles Clippers embarked on this three-game road trip to New York, Philadelphia and Boston, they constantly referred to it as a "business trip." It may seem like a cliché, but the Clippers haven’t always understood the importance of a "business trip" when they leave Los Angeles.

"I thought the guys had an amazing focus when they left," Rivers said. "You could just tell that they were going to take this trip very seriously. They looked at the games, and these were games we could get. But, you have to play to get them, and they did that. I’m very proud of them."

The way the Clippers are moving the ball is actually better than it was last season. In fact, many of the Clippers players believe it’s the best they’ve played during their current run of four consecutive playoff berths.

"We have a really good rhythm right now, especially that first unit," Redick said. "With the way teams load to the strong side, you really have to get to your second option, sometimes your third option, and that requires you to swing the ball from side to side and a lot of our possessions end with multiple passes on multiple sides. The other thing that’s happened in this stretch is our first unit is getting stops and we get to go against a defense in transition that’s not set. That creates a lot of problems.

"A defense essentially has to make tough decisions. Do we stop Chris on the pick-and-roll and leave D.J. to roll? Do we stop D.J. to roll and leave the weakside corner open, which is usually either Matt or me. So we’re creating problems and making it tough on the defense."

Doc Rivers also praised the team's level of play after yesterday's game against the Celtics.

It's the part of the Clippers' game that often goes unnoticed, like the upholstery in a Ferrari.

Defense is easy to overlook when J.J. Redick swishes shots as if he's all alone in the gym or DeAndre Jordan jumps so high to dunk a lob that it seems like his head might graze one of the Boston Celtics' championship banners.

"Our offense is beautiful to watch," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said after Redick and Jordan wowed their teammates, not to mention the TD Garden crowd, Sunday during a 119-106 victory over the Celtics.

And yet, Rivers also is the first to acknowledge it is the Clippers' defense that has triggered their seven-game winning streak and a monthlong stretch of play that might be as good as any his team has logged since he arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 2013.

"I think our guys have finally connected the dots," Rivers said. "When we're good defensively, we're really good offensively. That's something we've been trying to get them to see all year. . . . They get it."

There's suddenly little doubt as to what the Clippers need to succeed.

"It has been our defense," Blake Griffin said. "We hit shots but at the same time we got stops and then we get out in the open court and get easy buckets and then those easy buckets allow you to see more shots go down. It's a snowball effect, so one thing complements the other."

Beat writer Ben Bolch also complimented the ball movement during the recent run of victories, calling it 'Spurs-ian' — and while I'd argue it's been that way for a long time, it's still exceptional praise.

The Clippers’ ball movement has become very Spurs-ian. Point guard Chris Paul said the Clippers are passing up good shots for great ones, and he isn’t exaggerating in the slightest. Most of the Clippers’ looks have been good ones in recent weeks, the team zipping the ball around with a sense of purpose. Shooting guard J.J. Redick has also quickly countered every defensive adjustment teams have made to sustain his recent hot stretch of scoring 15 or more points in 14 consecutive games. "Tonight, they were trying not to let him go right," Rivers said of Redick, who scored a team-high 27 points against the Celtics. "So, he just started going left, making shots. It’s just great to watch."