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Improved defensive intensity has been key to Clippers' strong second halves

In the 30 games since Blake Griffin went down, the Clippers have been a markedly better team in the second halves of games. What's the deal?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Through the season's first 30 games, when the Clippers had a relatively weak 17-13 record, the team had a net rating of 5.7 in the first halves of games. However, that number plummeted to -1.2 in second halves. They were trying to incorporate a slew of new players into the rotation, so of course there were some growing pains. The Clips weren't playing up to their caliber but most assumed they'd eventually figure things out.

Since then, though, the numbers have flipped in the opposite direction dramatically. LAC has gone 23-7 since Christmas, thanks in large part to playing extremely well in the second halves of games. They're sporting a pedestrian 2.1 NetRtg in first halves over the last 30 games, but that number balloons to an insane 16.5 NetRtg in second halves. They have an offensive efficiency of 111.4 and a defensive efficiency of just 94.9 during that stretch.

That second half net rating is the best mark in the league since December 26th, a full four points better than the second-ranked Spurs. Golden State, in case you were wondering, is No. 4 with a second half net rating of 5.3. Considering how many blowouts the Spurs and Warriors dole out, though, it's only natural for their second half numbers to look worse than their overall stats. There's an awful lot of garbage time being played. San Antonio leads the league in first half net rating since December 26th (15.5), with the Warriors a close second (13.5). They get their work done early, while the Clippers apparently like to keep things dramatic before buckling down after halftime.

Wednesday night's win over the Thunder was a prime example. The Clips took a blitzkrieg from OKC in the first half, with the Thunder building a commanding 20-point lead after 24 minutes. They connected on 8-of-17 from deep, with five of those coming from the likes of Kyle Singler, Dion Waiters and Randy Foye. It felt like it was just going to be one of those nights for the Clippers with the way Oklahoma City's spares were lighting it up. The Clippers, meanwhile, finished the first half shooting a pathetic 30% and 22% from deep. It would've been almost impossible for the second half to go worse for LAC.

You know what happened. The Clippers outscored OKC by 25 following the break with a huge 34-18 advantage in points in the paint. The Thunder were held to just 2-of-18 shooting from three while the Clippers drilled 52% of their shots. There was a monstrous discrepancy in LAC's energy level compared to it was in the first half, which is a trend we've been seeing develop from this team.

It's strange to see how the Clippers have evolved from the first 30 games to the last 30 games. The timeline, of course, lines up with the Blake Griffin injury. Blake's personal net rating in the 30 first halves he's played this season is a tidy 11.2. In the second half, though, it's all the way down to -0.3.

Without Griffin available, the Clips have had to ride on the shoulders of Chris Paul. And over the last 30 games, CP3 has been absolutely insane in the second halves. He's shooting just 41% from the floor in the first halves of the last 30, but ups that to over 53% following the break. His three-point percentage rises from 34% to 41%, as well. Let's take a gander at those shot charts:

1st halves:

2nd halves:

The simplest explanation for Paul upping his game after halftime may just be him saying, "Eff this, I'm taking over." We typically associate offensive aggressiveness with a willingness to attack the basket, but CP3 is actually taking more shots from the outside when he's trying to assert himself late in games. 32.5% of Chris' second half shots come from beyond-the-arc compared to 27.3% in the first 24 minutes. Those threes aren't coming at the expense of his midrange shots (he actually shoots slightly more from midrange in the first half), but rather his attempts at the rim. His distribution dips from 23.7% of shots at the rim in the first half to just over 19% in the second. He's more proficient shooting from the outside than he is at trying to score at the rim among the tall trees, so the distribution suits his game nicely.

CP3 has long had a reputation as a guy that will let the game come to him early on. He feels his job is to get everyone else involved and into a rhythm before looking to score himself down-the-stretch. It's a noble way to play, but without Griffin's scoring in the fold the Clips would probably be better served if Chris looked to get himself going from the jump rather than waiting until after the half.

Paul is burdened with carrying most of the offensive load, but he's not alone among those that seem to get stronger on that end as the game goes along. We think of J.J. Redick as a guy that tends to get it going early, but he's actually shooting better (50.6%) in second halves over the last 30 than in first halves (45.9%). Jamal Crawford improves his three-point percentage from an abysmal 28.6% before the break to a passable 34.8% after.

But the primary reason the Clippers are enjoying so much success late in games is the defense. Check out where they rank in a few statistical areas from one half to the next over the 30 game sample:

Going from middle-of-the-pack to the upper echelon in most of these categories seems to represent a dramatic shift in the club's defensive effort and focus once halftime ends. Obviously, forcing a boatload of turnovers while also making teams to shoot poor percentages is a recipe for defensive success. These numbers are pretty staggering.

Maybe Doc Rivers gives crappy pregame speeches but awe-inspiring halftime speeches? The teams the Clippers have faced since December 26th have a collective win percentage of .477 on the year. Maybe it's a case of a bunch of so-so teams crumbling late in games as the Clippers are able to take advantage of their talent edge? Maybe the Clips come into lots of these games thinking they can just show up and win before actually trying once it's evident they can't? Does Paul Pierce's minutes distribution (290 first half minutes, just 209 second half minutes since Dec. 26) factor into this? Whatever the case, the Clippers team we've been seeing after the break barely resembles the one that has been sleeping their way through first halves of games.

We know the Clippers flamed-out in the postseason last year primarily because the starters simply ran out of gas. With absolutely zero bench, this seemed inevitable. Despite the ups-and-downs the reserves have endured already this season, the team absolutely has more usable depth than last year's club.

LAC getting off to sluggish starts has been a consistent theme for a while now. It's a dangerous way to play, especially against teams they should be beating with relative ease. It came back to bite them a couple of weeks ago in the losses to the lowly Nuggets and Timberwolves, and they've also had close encounters with both the 76ers and Nets of late. The Clippers have 14 more wins than Philly and Brooklyn combined. There's no reason for those games to be close. L.A. should've been able to put those teams away early and give the starters some much needed time to rest during the fourth quarter. Instead, the starters had to play huge minutes and try and grind these games out.

Doc Rivers expressed concern around the All-Star break that Paul may be worn down later in the season thanks to having to exert so much energy just to keep his team afloat. Unfortunately, the Clips have just missed some of their best chances to get their starting point guard (and others) some much-needed rest.

Save for what should (SHOULD) be relatively easy games with New York and New Orleans, LAC has a brutal upcoming schedule. The Hawks, Mavericks, Spurs, Thunder (twice more), Rockets, Cavs, Celtics, Blazers and Warriors are all on the sked before April hits. Griffin's return at some point during this stretch will help, but there likely isn't a soft game among them. As a result, the starters are going to have to exert themselves a ton as they continue to fight for the West's No. 3 seed.

Considering they can boast an excellent .766 winning percentage since Blake went down after Christmas, it's safe to say that toying around with subpar teams in the first halves hasn't come back to haunt the Clippers yet. They've had a fairly soft schedule during that span and have gone 24-7 against sub-.500 teams this season. More often than not they've been able to recover in time to eke these games out before the final buzzer.

If the core (excluding Griffin) starts to lose a bit of physical steam come playoff time, though, we'll look back at some of these needlessly taxing regular season games and wonder if they had bigger long-term consequences. In the meantime, they've found a recipe for success right now with Paul, Redick and Crawford ramping up the offense after the break and DeAndre Jordan and company suffocating opponents on the other end.

All stats courtesy of