I was in Staples Center on the May 2015 night that should have produced the most triumphant moment in the addled history of the Los Angeles Clippers. Instead, I witnessed the most ignominious. With less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Clips were up by 19 points. They were on the precipice of eliminating the Houston Rockets from the best-of-seven series and advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time.
Over the next 14 minutes, the Clippers pulled the chokiest of all choke jobs, leaving my friend Jonathan and I slack-jawed in our seats as they squandered the lead and then the game. A few days later, they lost the series.
Now, after this week’s debacle, that night feels like a more innocent, gentler time.
On Tuesday night the Clippers, with a completely different roster than the 2015 squad, completed the final installment of what may be the ugliest meltdown in NBA history. Not only did they blow a 3-1 series advantage over the Denver Nuggets, they did so after taking a double-digit lead in each of the final three games, and then every time saw it detonate in their faces in pure Wile E. Coyote fashion. The players’ gobsmacked expressions were similar to those of the Road Runner’s nemesis. The only thing missing was the Acme boxes.
Give the Nuggets credit, as they battled back from 16-, 19-, and 12-point deficits in games five, six, and seven, respectively. They refused to quit while the Clippers wilted under pressure. Denver coach Mike Malone out-maneuvered his Clippers counterpart Doc Rivers.
This is all relative, of course. A global pandemic has killed nearly 200,000 people in the United States alone and families have been upended by disappearing jobs. We’re in the midst of a painful national reckoning with racial justice. A basketball team’s loss is nothing compared to the many greater losses people have suffered.
Yet the return of the NBA has been simultaneously a diversion from the dark times and a reminder that life will return to normal. And history shows that the Clippers disappointing performance is, sadly, normal.
What makes this loss particularly crushing is that the Clippers’ inglorious 50-year history seemed finally ready to change. This was to be the season that the franchise shrugged off its status as L.A.’s “other” team and claimed a spot among the NBA’s elite. I was among those banging the drum, writing last October that, “The Clippers Are Title Contenders and the Best Team in L.A.” That didn’t age well.
Clippers fans may be helplessly hopeful, but we don’t live in la-la land. We understand that Los Angeles is a Lakers town, that the purple and gold have earned their status with 16 NBA titles while the Clippers have never even advanced to the third round of the playoffs. We know that for decades the Lakers were ruled by the inimitable Dr. Jerry Buss, while the Clips were long saddled with the odious Donald Sterling.
Things started to change when Steve Ballmer bought the team in 2014. He installed the architecture to build a winner, and then in July 2019 the Clippers stunned the basketball universe by signing free agent super-duperstar Kawhi Leonard and trading for another star in Paul George. The lineup was deep, with a gritty complementary cast featuring Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley. This was a blue-collar bunch with a nasty defense. When the season began last October, numerous NBA experts picked the Clippers to win NBA championship. The coronavirus put everything into question, but when play resumed in the “bubble” in Orlando, many still expected the Clips to claim the title.
Lou Williams, an epic marksman, seemed to forget that the goal is put the round ball through the orange hoop.
The team was rolling, but then in three short games, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The final loss is the most unsettling, as Leonard and George combined to shoot an atrocious 10-for-38. Williams, an epic marksman, seemed to forget that the goal is put the round ball through the orange hoop.
Not only did the Clippers squander their season, they upchucked the opportunity for the single greatest playoff series in the city’s history. The Lakers rolled their first two postseason opponents to reach the Western Conference finals. The Clippers were one victory from igniting the ultimate Battle for Los Angeles.
The upcoming series should have featured four of the NBA’s brightest stars in LeBron, Kawhi, Anthony Davis, and Paul George. In a weird twist, having games on a “neutral” court in Orlando would likely have benefitted the Clippers, as whenever the teams meet in Staples Center there’s almost always a vociferous Lakers crowd, even if it’s a designated Clippers home game. For once, home-court advantage would have meant nothing.
Clippers fans are despondent. As Jonathan and I watched the fourth quarter in our socially distant homes, he asked me, “What did we do wrong? We’re good people, right?” I had no answer. My Clippers text chain bounced between disbelieving and apoplectic. Some fans are calling for Doc to be fired. It probably won’t happen, but I get the sentiment.
Clipper Nation is reeling, and the situation grows even more painful knowing that LeBron and the Lakers may now laugh their way into a 17th NBA championship.
If there’s an upside—and Clippers fans have spent half a century seeking upsides—it’s that rebounds happen all the time in sports. Ballmer has changed the culture of the franchise. The front office and the roster remain among the best in the NBA. Many teams have disappointed mightily before winning it all.
But this moment is like the one after your pooch poops in the bed. You get angry. Then you clean things up and move forward. You hope tomorrow will be different, even if today stinks.
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