LOS ANGELES -- Championship-pedigree coach Doc Rivers brought a "No Excuses" policy with him from the storied Boston Celtics to the horror-show Los Angeles Clippers. Halfway through his first season with the franchise that has combined excuses with poor management to miss the playoffs in 23 of the last 29 seasons, Rivers' foundational philosophy was put to the test.
Elite point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers' first legitimate MVP candidate since the franchise moved to L.A. in 1984, went down with a separated shoulder on Jan. 3.
He stayed down for more than a month, missing 18 games.
If you've followed the Clippers for the past three decades (anyone? Bueller?), you know this was time to cue the violins. Collapse to follow.
But this time, the Clippers might have actually gotten better, and when Paul returned to the team on Feb. 9, they had a new MVP candidate (forward Blake Griffin), a new identity (resilient, unified, deep) and finally (could it actually be?) a chance to get past the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the rest of the West and reach the NBA Finals.
Paul, 28, the only player in L.A. Clippers history to be named first-team all-NBA, finished third and fourth in the MVP voting in his first two seasons with the team. When he was sidelined, the Clippers were 23-12. They went 12-6 without him, and are now 10-2 with him back in the lineup, including a winning streak that was extended to eight games Monday night with an eventful 112-105 victory against the Phoenix Suns.
The winning streak, which could be stretched to nine Wednesday night against the Golden State Warriors, is notable in that two of the Clippers' top four scorers this season, guards Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick, have missed considerable time with injuries and will again be on the sideline Wednesday.
But that just continues the theme -- no excuses.
"That's what Doc has said from the beginning," says Crawford, the explosive scorer who went from sixth man to starter when Redick went down with a bulging disk in his lower back. "Chis is one of the best players in the league, and when you lose a guy like that, you can't replace it. So it's time for everyone to step it up."
That's exactly what happened. Griffin, who was already having a much-improved season, grew into even more of a go-to role. He becoming a more versatile player who is just as likely to impersonate Tim Duncan, banking in 15-footers, as he is to throw down a highlight dunk, though he did both Monday night, when he made 14 of 16 shots (with just two dunks) to score 37 points.
"I wish you guys could see him; he works out so much," Rivers said of Griffin, who turns 25 Sunday and is averaging just under that (24.4 points per game, a career high). "He works on that bank shot over and over. He just works on his game and he's getting the payment. He's putting in a lot of deposits, and now he's getting some cash back."
If Griffin's game has changed for the better, he still hasn't been able to avoid the skirmishes with opponents that continue to dog him. Monday, it was an episode with Suns forward P.J. Tucker in the fourth quarter. They fell to the floor while battling for rebound position and, while getting untangled, Tucker fired a forearm to Griffin's head.
Griffin was hot but refrained from a violent response. Tucker was ejected and after the game Griffin and Rivers agreed the nonviolent way is the best way.
"We've all seen it and it gets old, it really does," Rivers said. "I think he's doing the right thing. I really do. He puts up his arms because if he reacts the way people say he should, then he gets thrown out, gets suspended and it hurts the team. I know it's very difficult for him. But he's doing the right thing for the team."
Said Griffin: "You just have to weigh the pros and cons . . . To do something stupid, to get kicked out or suspended doesn't help."
Recent Clippers acquisition Danny Granger, a former All-Star forward in Indiana, knows full well the frustrating dilemma of Griffin's opponents.
"He's one of those players that you can't stop," Granger said. "A lot of times he just bullies people. Push them under the rim and lay the ball up or dunk it. That makes some people mad, when you have a force like him. Sometimes you just throw your hands up and there's not much you can do."
And now he's making mid-range jump shots with regularity, and there's even less you can do.
"His game has really developed," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "That's what great players do. He's shown a lot more ability than just getting up the court and dunking."
When Paul was sidelined, Griffin was not the only one who responded with an improved effort. Crawford shined, as did center DeAndre Jordan. Forward Matt Barnes is playing some of the best ball of his career. And backup point guard Darren Collison became a stalwart playmaker, scorer and leader.
"Without him, we wouldn't have the record we have," Rivers said of Collison, who is currently starting alongside Paul and tossed in 20 points Monday. "He's been a savior for us. He really has. He kept the boat floating."
What happened, Crawford says, is that just about everybody was asked to do a little more when Paul wasn't around. So then they got comfortable -- and confident in -- doing more. And when Paul came back, that just sort of supercharged them.
"Our trust in each other has grown," Crawford said. "We believe in each other. We know ourselves at this point."
And they know they can get production from lots of people. During the winning streak, the Clippers have gotten double-figure scoring games from 10 different players. Ten. That includes recent additions Granger and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, veteran free agents who have shown they might be able to contribute significantly in the playoffs.
Granger, 30, the former Indiana all-star who has been injured much of the past two seasons, displayed a few flashes of his old brilliance Monday night, when he hit a couple of three-pointers, put the ball on the floor a little and scored 14 points in 23 minutes.
The winning streak hasn't come against patsies, either. Among the eight wins are victories against Oklahoma City, Houston, and two against Phoenix. Oh, there was one patsy, the down-the-hall Los Angeles Lakers, whom the Clippers demolished last week 142-94, the worst loss in Lakers history.
The Clippers lost in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons, and are still a young team without a history of playoff success. So Rivers is hoping they can pass No. 3 Houston and maybe even No. 1 San Antonio and No. 2 Oklahoma City in the playoff seedings race to get as much home-court advantage as possible; they are 27-5 at home, the best mark in the Western Conference.
They are currently 2 1/2 games behind the top-seeded Spurs, two behind the Thunder and just percentage points behind the Rockets.
Whatever happens, it won't be just Chris Paul leading the way.
"On any given night, the other team doesn't know what's going to happen," Paul said. "Most things are run through me and Blake, but we've had a number of guys step up. Different guys have had to step up at different times in different roles. I think we really understand how valuable each member of our team is because at some point of the season, someone has had to step in and make a difference.
"When I went down, there wasn't a memorial service."