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Clippers Spring to Defense

L.A. buckles down and rolls to an easy win over Utah, 106-91, after poor game against the Spurs.

April 01, 2006|Jason Reid | Times Staff Writer

Well, that seemed to be better.

The Clippers appeared to improve on defense from their previous game, getting it together again Friday night at Staples Center in a 106-91 victory against the Utah Jazz that assured them of a winning record for the first time in 15 seasons.

Elton Brand and Sam Cassell each scored 22 points, Chris Kaman had 11 points and 13 rebounds, and the five starters reached double figures as the Clippers, who impressed in the second half against a playoff contender, rebounded from Tuesday's poor showing on defense in a loss to the formidable San Antonio Spurs.

With the victory, the Clippers (42-29) secured their first winning mark since the 1991-92 season, when they finished 45-37.

Moreover, they reduced their "magic number" to four to earn their first Western Conference playoff berth since the 1996-97 season. The Clippers -- again a season-high 13 games above .500 -- are also two games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies in the race to be the conference's fifth-seeded team in the playoffs.

The top eight teams in each conference earn postseason berths, and the Jazz (34-38) is 10th in the West.

The Spurs, who have the best record in the conference, are a tougher challenge than the Jazz, and it showed.

"Defensively, we were much better, and tougher," said Coach Mike Dunleavy, whose team shot 55.4% from the field and led by as many as 20 in the second half. "We went after balls better, and that was important for us.... It's a very positive step for us to play over .500.

"The first step coming in is to create a winning team here. We're assured of that, and that's important. Obviously, we want to win every game we play, but you've got to get to the first step first, and this is something that's very positive for our team and our organization."

But are the Clippers good enough on defense to succeed in the playoffs?

"Well, that's the question, and that's what Coach is working on now," Brand said. "We know we can score points, but he's tinkering with the lineups because he wants us to be the best defensive team possible out there.

"I believe we have the pieces to plug in. It's really just a matter of making everything fit the right way."

With the exception of swingman Quinton Ross, the team's best perimeter defender, most of the top Clipper players aren't considered to be good one-on-one defenders. Because of the limitations, Dunleavy hasn't required the Clippers to primarily play straight man-to-man defense, instead structuring defensive plans on rotating to shooters.

Beginning play Friday, the Clippers were first in the NBA in blocked shots with an average of 6.3, and fourth in opponent field-goal percentage at 43.17%, so the strategy has seemed to work.

The Clippers have often encountered problems, however, against opponents with quick guards, who penetrate and locate shooters for uncontested jumpers.

The New Orleans Hornets, the Grizzlies and the Spurs followed the blueprint in recent victories over the Clippers, who acknowledged they could improve on defense before the playoffs begin.

"We can play defense, and we can play better than we have, it's just a matter of us doing what we're supposed to do," said Corey Maggette, who had 13 points. "We play our best when we're playing both ends of the floor, so it's not that we can't play defense, it's just the mistakes that we make.

"We have to be focused on doing the right things and not making those mistakes, especially in the playoffs. Not rotating and not communicating, those are the biggest problems we've had, and we just can't have any more letdowns like that."

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