LOS ANGELES — The moment could have called for a light practice. This marked a forgettable Saturday on which most would rather relax and watch college football.
These moments could define the Los Angeles Clippers’ NBA championship chances, however. Perhaps as much as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. So Clippers coach Doc Rivers held a full-court scrimmage.
"I love them," Rivers said.
Most coaches love scrimmages during training camp. It raises the competition. It helps coaches sort out the depth chart. Once the regular season starts, Rivers often stopped them during his time coaching in Orlando (1999-2003), Boston (2004-2013) and Los Angeles (2013-present) to save his players’ legs for games that actually matter. Rivers has changed his strategy for this season, though.
Just like he did when the Boston Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in separate offseason deals to pair with Paul Pierce in 2007-08, Rivers plans to hold scrimmages frequently through the Clippers’ upcoming season. And why not?
The Clippers landed Leonard and George this summer. Rivers has varying starting lineups and bench rotations to evaluate. After logging 11 minutes in the Clippers’ preseason loss to Denver on Thursday, Leonard might sit out for Sunday’s matinee against Australian team Melbourne United.
Lastly, after having offseason surgery that will sideline him at least through November, George could use that scrimmage time to shed his expected rustiness.
"I'm all for this team doing that," Rivers said. "I think it's a little different because Paul George is not going to be here for the first 10 (games), so that's going to be a little harder to do."
Rivers said those words in passing. The Clippers also have yet to release a designated timetable on George’s return. But if Rivers’ estimation holds up, George would not return until Nov. 13 against the Houston Rockets. He would miss marquee games, such as the season opener in a designated home game against the Lakers (Oct. 22) and the Golden State Warriors’ season opener in San Francisco (Oct. 24).
So while George spent Saturday’s practice completing non-contact shooting drills, the Clippers held another scrimmage. Leonard played with Landry Shamet, Patrick Beverley, JaMychal Green and Ivica Zubac against Lou Williams, Jerome Robinson, Moe Harkless, Johnathon Motley and Montrezl Harrell.
Shortly after the Clippers opened their practice to reporters, Rivers held a scrimmage with only three minutes on the clock because "you rarely play more than three minutes in a row" before a foul call or a timeout.
The Clippers did not exactly need to figure out how to handle crunch-time situations.
"With smart players, they'll figure it out," Rivers said. "At the end of the day I always tell these guys if there was 10 seconds left at the park, and you needed a bucket, I don't think the coach needs to tell you where the hell the ball should go."
Yet, Rivers believes he needs these scrimmages to offset one potential disadvantage that even his team has. Following the Clippers’ preseason loss to Denver on Thursday, Rivers estimated to his coaching staff that the Nuggets have scrimmaged 200 times in the past few seasons. This team? Rivers observed they have had only nine days of training camp.
"The more we scrimmage and play, that's the only way we can try to catch up and gain minutes," Rivers said. "There's no way you can catch up in game minutes. You try to do it through scrimmaging and in situational stuff because there's no way we can catch up on teams like that. The more we put our teams in those situations, I think as the year goes on, you all will grow."
Rivers spoke from experience. He observed that the 2007-08 Celtics team "came together before the season started" because of their offseason workouts. Still, Rivers harbored concerns about how that would match up against the rest of the Eastern Conference. LeBron James entered his fifth season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Detroit Pistons had veterans Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace.
"My concern was six minutes left in the game, they know everything and we don't," Rivers said. "So we scrimmaged every day with that team."
Well before the Celtics eventually won an NBA championship that season, Rivers saw encouraging signs in the team’s first scrimmage.
"The second unit decided they were not going to let the first unit bully them because they were Paul Pierce, KG and Ray Allen," Rivers recalled.
Rivers liked that the Celtics’ Tony Allen, Glen Davis, Leon Powe and P.J. Brown had that mentality. Rivers also argued those scrimmages contributed to an edge that ensured the Celtics both won an NBA title and had only one three-game losing streak. Rivers regretted, however, how he initially set up the scrimmages.
He described the setting as "a fiasco" after letting the players call their own fouls. Soon enough, Pierce rewarded himself with foul shots on almost every possession. So, as Rivers recalled, Pierce’s teammates "refused to give him the ball, so the arguments lasted 10 minutes?"
How has that compared to the current Clippers so far?
"It’s been intense," Harkless said. "We’re trying to get ready for the regular season. So we approach practice every day with a seriousness and competitiveness that pushes everybody."
The Clippers have shown glimpses of those qualities during the select scrimmages that were open to the media.
Leonard has often shown off his array of pull-up jumpers and defensive skills. Williams has thrown off his defenders with his crafty play-making. Rivers has become encouraged with Zubac’s post presence. During open and closed practices, Rivers observed Leonard’s presence has fueled his teammates’ competitive juices just like the Celtics’ Big 3 did to their reserves.
"They want to play with him. They want to show him he can play," Rivers said. "It’s always about getting the trust when you have a great player. And all the guys want to get his trust. So they will throw the ball to him and just play with him."
Then perhaps that dynamic will also play out in actual games. So unlike other NBA championship caliber teams that may take practice days to rest and recover, the Clippers will scrimmage until they are told otherwise.