'I love where we're at right now.' Clippers push back at critics, savor win over Suns

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is fouled as he goes up for a shot in front of Suns forward Keita Bates-Diop

The Clippers spent November taking arrows.

Amid their dramatic turnaround ever since, they’ve taken notice of what is no longer being said about them.

Their transformation from being one of the Western Conference’s most disjointed teams to one of its most formidable continued with Wednesday’s 131-122 win in Phoenix that was their 13th victory in their past 15 games.

On Nov. 16, a six-game losing streak that coincided with their roster-shaking trade for James Harden left the Clippers only two losses out of last place in the West.

Read more: Clippers' Norman Powell learns to accept role, no matter how big or small

Now, at 21-12, the Clippers are only three games out of first.

“Fit is great, I knew that from the beginning and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of this,” said Harden, who scored 22 points with 11 assists, five rebounds and four turnovers against the Suns. “Obviously it didn’t start off well. So many people was — it gave people so much to talk about in a negative way — and now those people that were talking are nowhere to be found. Like, literally nowhere to be found. Which, we knew that was going to happen.

“But for us, I think it’s just focusing on this team and getting better every single day and focusing on the main goal.”

By their own admission, reaching that goal — the franchise’s first berth in the NBA Finals and championship — will require a better team than the Clippers currently are, even considering their 18-5 record since changing their starting lineup on Nov. 17.

“I love where we are at right now,” said Paul George, whose 33 points were a team-high. “This is a team that's not content on where we're at. We're always asking questions on how can we get better, what we got to do. And we work. You know, we've been a group that's been working. And so, you know, it's a cliche, but sky is the limit for this group.”

Paul George is fouled by Suns guard Bradley Beal.

Against the Suns (18-16) on Wednesday, the Clippers never trailed, scored 70 while locking up Phoenix star Devin Booker during a wildly efficient first half and built their lead to 23 points in the second half against the short-handed Suns, who were without Kevin Durant and his sore hamstring. Bradley Beal, Booker and Durant have appeared in only four games together for a grand total of 65 minutes, a lack of continuity that reminded several Clippers of their own struggles to keep their strong rosters healthy in recent seasons.

Yet when the Clippers' lead was down to seven with 58 seconds to play as part of a second half in which Los Angeles allowed 71 points, and a fourth quarter where they scored only 24 points themselves, it was another indication why George felt “there’s still a ton of stuff that we can get better at.”

In recent weeks the Clippers have cautioned that their offense, while running essentially only a fraction of their full playbook in order to integrate Harden using a simplified scheme, was showing only the tip of its iceberg. They spent recent practices trying to add new plays, but that backfired when Kawhi Leonard couldn’t practice due to a hip injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue said the team had poorly navigated Phoenix’s double-teams in the final eight minutes. Even using one of their most statistically potent lineups — their starters, with reserve Norman Powell replacing Terance Mann — had little effect. Three consecutive possessions illustrated the quicksand into which their offense had fallen. Josh Okogie blocked a three-pointer by Harden. The 6-foot-4 Okogie then stuffed 7-foot center Ivica Zubac at the rim, forcing a jump ball. Their next possession ended with a shot-clock violation while the ball was in the hands of Paul George.

Read more: Clippers' Norman Powell learns to accept role, no matter how big or small

The Clippers drilled the importance of transition defense during a film session Wednesday morning, highlighting how they ranked “at the bottom” in that area, Harden said; by that evening, despite the win, it was still described as an area needing improvement, as soon as possible.

“Just not running back to matchups,” said Leonard, who scored 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting in his second game back from injuring his hip. “I think whoever we start on we just got to run back and pick up whoever’s coming up the floor and obviously communication, and just knowing what we’re doing.”

And yet the Clippers still made 55% of their shots, including 18 three-pointers, one from matching their season high, and George made 12 of his season-high 14 free throws. Having endured the worst-shooting start to his career, Mann scored 12 points in the first half to jumpstart the Clippers’ early double-digit lead.

“They got a lot of firepower,” said Eric Gordon, the guard who joined Phoenix during the offseason after he was waived by the Clippers. “And if you don't break their rhythm, they're going to be a hard team to beat.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.