Mike Scott’s assessment of the Clippers last week was blunt, unapologetic and rather accurate. The idea that the Clippers are no longer a “joke” was established by Blake Griffin in 2011 shortly after the team swapped three players and a first round draft pick for Chris Paul. It’s no longer news that the Clippers are not a moribund franchise. Escaping the label of lacking toughness, well, that’s been more elusive.
Through most of the past six-plus seasons, the Clippers earned the reputation as complainers, irritants, and a team that was too often cast with misfortune and a certain lack of intestinal fortitude. Sure, they overcame the Sterling fiasco to gut out a playoff series in dramatic fashion. Sure, they capped off another historic playoff series with a running floater over a certain Hall of Fame power forward. But those seemingly heavy monuments were effectively hung on the wall of Clippers lore with Scotch tape. No sooner than they were harkened as a turning point, they were crashing to the hardwood floor below.
Less than two weeks after wiping out Golden State, Paul entered self-destruct mode in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. A year later, a 19-point, Game 6 lead over Houston was eviscerated and so was the memory of Paul’s iconic shot over Tim Duncan. So it went. Less important regular-season milestones gave way to injuries and playoff tumult. By the time those six years were up, there was a sense of relief as much as accomplishment.
So, when Mike Scott says the Clippers “ain’t no bitches,” there is a lot of recent history to unravel. But the thing is… he’s right.
Rewind to an icy January in 2014. The Clippers were visiting Chicago, a team that was in decline despite Tom Thibodeau’s best attempts at clinging to the waning soul of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals roster. It was Doc Rivers’ first season in Los Angeles and he was giving some lengthy pregame sound to then-Clippers’ beat reporter Dan Woike, who was working on a Rivers profile for the Orange County Register.
Even though we had no way of knowing it then, that was the first indication that someday the Clippers would embody Scott’s comment. The toughness started with the coach. Rivers, a native Chicagoan, grew up the son of a police officer. As much as Rivers loves regaling with the media and golfing in the offseason, at heart he’s still that hard-nosed Chicago kid, that no-nonsense guard who got by on guts as much as talent for more than a decade as a player.
At a certain point, the conversation within the small group of reporters steered towards Chicago-bred players. Of course, it started with Kevin Garnett (pseudo-Chicago by way of South Carolina) and Derrick Rose, but eventually turned to Patrick Beverley. Short of saying it outright, Rivers made it very clear that he admired that sort of take no prisoners type player. He “loved” Beverley, who coincidentally would be on the Rockets bench when they ended the Clippers’ season in 2015.
The roster Rivers inherited never fit much with his style. There was hardly any grit or grime, and while the net defensive rating was excellent during stretches, they were built mostly on an efficient, prolific offense more than any kind of prime stopping ability. Many privately bemoaned the Clippers’ inability to embrace being nasty, embrace being villains. Lob City was fun, but to win they needed to be less Hollywood and more Chicago; more Patrick Beverley.
When Rivers took over, he met with team personnel to discuss game-day details at Staples Center for the season. They went down the roster and several players had specific needs, or agendas, for home games. Towards the end of the conversation, Rivers had likely grown agitated, and when it was revealed that an end-of-the-bench player would need a space in the Staples Center players’ lot for his driver, Rivers chuckled and said, “Why the (expletive) does he need a driver?” Welcome to L.A.
Four summers later, with a move on the table to trade Paul to the Rockets, the Clippers and Rivers planted the seeds for the “we ain’t no bitches” roster, bringing in 2018-19 Sixth Man of the Year candidates Lou Williams, who won it last year, and Montrezl Harrell along with, of course, Beverley. Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who was traded by Charlotte for the Pistons pick), who were acquired for Griffin; Danilo Gallinari, who was acquired in a sign-and-trade for Jamal Crawford and a draft pick, and Scott round out the group.
They all play with something to prove; with a grittiness that might cause the Zach Randolph-obsessed Chris Vernon’s of the world to spin upside down. It’s no surprise, then, that they have surged for comeback victories in three of their past four games and lead the NBA in defensive net field goal percentage.
The Memphis comeback on Friday afternoon was the early-season crown jewel, surpassing back-to-back cardiac victories over Milwaukee and Golden State. The Clippers struggled to score the ball, especially Harris, who had a season-low 12 points, and were outclassed for three and a half quarters. But they emerged from the mat in winning time, Gallinari sending it to overtime with three clutch free throws, Bradley creating defensive havoc (finally), and Williams and Harrell completing the comeback in overtime.
Through nearly a fourth of the season the Clippers have the best record in the West. It might be surprising. It might not last entirely. But, say what you will, the sample size is large enough to be comforted that these Clippers will do anything but quit.