Matt Barnes, left and Blake Griffin, second from left, tangle with Oklahoma… (Alex Gallardo / Associated…)
For the Clippers, a funny thing happened on the way to a run-and-shoot, razzle-and-dazzle victory Wednesday night over a very good run-and-shoot, razzle-and-dazzle team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Matt Barnes got in a fight and got thrown out. And that may turn out to be a little turning point for a team just finding its way in a season that will keep coming at us through June.
Barnes, you see, may represent a small measure of the kind of toughness a team needs in the NBA to go all the way.
Sadly, he carried that toughness a step past logic when he tweeted in anger from the locker room, using the N-word, about being tired of having to stand up for his teammates. Thursday morning, he apologized for his actions on Twitter.
That's not pretty, nor is it pretty to comment in a positive vein about somebody getting tossed from a game. But this is not your father's NBA. Remember who ushered the Clippers out of the playoffs last year, and how?
The rough, tough, never-give-an-inch Memphis Grizzlies.
Last season's version of the Clippers was a joy to watch. With alley-oops and loop-de-loops, they were a crowd-pleasing bunch. So much so that their lack of stomach for tough defense never really got much play until Memphis pinned them to the mat for a three count and for all to see in the playoffs.
Then, everybody sighed and nodded when Clippers management fired coach Vinny Del Negro. Aha, that fixed that.
Well, no, not quite yet.
The Clippers are still wildly entertaining and fantastically athletic. There's still plenty of alley in their oop. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin still run a pick-and-roll like they were born to it.
But the excellence on the offensive end remains well out of proportion to what they do on the defensive end.
You can talk about missed switches, ill-advised double teams and failures to turn around and put your big butt into the closest opposing player when an opponent's shot goes up. That's all still there, but the numbers tell it best.
Going into Wednesday night, the Clippers were 28th in the league (of 30 teams) in points allowed. They were giving up 106.4 points a game and were allowing opposing teams a field-goal shooting average of 47.5%.
Hands up on defense, anybody?
This is an elite team in need of a blue-collar work ethic. Its DNA is pretty passes, sensational dunks, jazzy Paul drives and dish-offs and spectacular Jamaal Crawford three-point rainbows.
Interestingly, this would not be the ideal formula for new Coach Doc Rivers, whose playing and coaching career, while never lacking for great offensive touches, has been basic blue-collar stuff. The Rivers Celtics weren't thugs. Nor could they be pushed around.
When the Barnes-Serge Ibaka tussle was in full fury, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks was out in the middle of it. Rivers watched from afar, letting the boys be boys. An NBA coach can never advocate fighting of any kind, because the David Stern politically correct police will come and empty his wallet.
But one can only wonder what team emotions came from Barnes' standing up for teammate Griffin, taking a poke at Ibaka, who had poked first, and getting ejected. It happened with six seconds left in the first half. One can only wonder if Rivers used it as a main topic of discussion at halftime — perhaps in a positive vein.
He had, after all, inserted his current go-to defensive guys just before that — Barnes and Darren Collison. There was no question he was stressing stops, rather than gos, at that moment.
So what happened in the second half?
The Clippers held the Thunder to 16 points, 29.4% shooting and zero three-point baskets in the third period and went on to win, 111-103.
"In the first half, they were attacking us, and we were looking around at each other like we were asking, 'Why are they attacking us?' " Rivers said. "I told them they are attacking us because they want to win.
"So, in the second half, both teams attacked each other. That made it a great game."
In victory, the Clippers still gave up those 103 points. Their defense is still a work in process, a hard-edge toughness that Rivers wants and that wins games. He refers to it as kind of a positive adversity.
"Adversity is always good," he said. "I tell them, accept it, embrace it, enjoy it."
Also, fight through picks, screen out and get your hands up on defense.