LA Clippers emphasizing defense without Blake Griffin, Chris Paul

Dec 30, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

The LA Clippers’ offense is severely limited without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, which leaves the team needing to place an even greater emphasis on defensive improvement.

If the LA Clippers are going to win as much as possible without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, it’s going to be with defense. And not the kind of tentative, inconsistent defense that you’d expect from a team feeling disheartened in such an injury ridden start to the new year, but the level of tireless effort, communication and switching that led the Clippers to their 14-2 record to open this season.

Of course, there are going to be some limitations as to how far their defense can carry them in this time. After all, you still have to score more points than the other team to win and all that, DeAndre Jordan has been slightly bothered lately with a hip injury, while the loss of Griffin’s size and defensive rebounding (not to mention Paul’s All-Defensive First Team play) can’t be replaced by effort alone.

That being said, as the Clippers snapped their six-game losing streak and won their first game of 2017 with a 109-98 victory against the Phoenix Suns on January 2nd, increased effort and defense (even though the Suns simply missing some shots helped) was essential.

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It’s a much closer matchup when considering how the Clippers have difficulty to create nearly the same level of offense without their superstar floor generals in Paul and Griffin. Add in rather uninspired, lacklustre play from the rest of the team when looking at how they played through most of the losing streak, and it’s certainly not a guaranteed win.

However, as the Clippers knuckled down without their top players to hold the young Suns to just 40 points in the second half, 38.2 percent shooting for the entire game, and bothered Eric Bledsoe (8-of-27 shooting) and Devin Booker (4-of-15) all night long, the effort was back. Jordan laid down his authority with 20 rebounds and a trio of blocks, combining with solid input from the team’s guards and wings to contest players when attacking the paint.

The Clippers went small with a three-guard lineup from tip off as Doc Rivers opted to start Raymond Felton, J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers together, which gave the team a great deal of penetration with Rivers and (especially) Felton, who provided 16 points and five assists. Redick’s hot start and team-high 22 points was also a driving force they needed, but the team knows that everything comes back to defense right now.

“We’ve got to look in the mirror and understand we’ve got to play harder,” Marreese Speights said in Oklahoma City to Rowan Kavner of “No excuse with (Paul and Griffin) being out, we’ve just got to step up more.” As easy as such comments are to make, and as overdue as such an approach felt to those who have been watching, Speights is right. There is no excuse not to, at the very least, play harder than the opposition and resort to that effort and defense to win when your offense can’t be close to its best.

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And seeing as the Clippers still got outscored by 19 in fastbreak points against the Suns and 114-31 in their six-game losing streak, that seriously needs to be addressed (you can read more on that in my column here). The defense certainly isn’t fully back after this game.

Following their win against the Suns, though, the Clippers expressed similar emphasis on intensity and defense to Kavner. “In the second half, we had unbelievable half-court defense,” Redick said. “It reminded me of earlier in the season when we were flying around and covering for each other. Our rotations were phenomenal tonight. That, to me, was why we won.”

Again, despite his own 22-point showing and all nine of the Clippers players (except for Wesley Johnson) scoring at least nine points each against the Suns, that type of defense is crucial now. Especially when it comes to closing games without your two best scorers and playmakers to get baskets, being able to rely on coming up with more defensive stops is even more important.

Next: Is Speights the Clippers' missing piece?

“I feel like we played the right way,” Jordan said after beating the Suns. At a time when adjusting, locking in and making the best of a tough situation is all the LA Clippers can do, they need more of the same going for. How that fares against tougher opponents is the question to worry about.