This evening I will pull out my vaccination card, get my phone scanned, and walk into Staples Center to witness history. And the fact that I will witness history is as exciting as it is ridiculous.
I’m a long-suffering Los Angeles Clippers fan, and like everyone else who wears the label, the emphasis is on the suffering. The franchise has been around for 51 years, and 2021 is the first time the team has advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Thursday and Saturday will mark the first two home games in a conference finals. Being this terrible for this long takes a unique level of suckitude—no team in the four major sports leagues has had a longer drought of making its respective final four.
Not that the Clips have made things easy for fans. The first 15 games of the playoffs have been like riding a roller coater in the middle of a magnitude 17 earthquake that triggers a tsunami while peeved martians shoot laser beams at us. That’s because, on the path to this historic moment, the Clippers made more history by becoming the first NBA team to rally from two 0-2 deficits in the same postseason and win a seven-game series. Every time they were counted out, they came back.
Being this terrible for this long takes a unique level of suckitude—no team in the four major sports leagues has had a longer drought of making its respective final four.
Did I mention history yet? This infuriating bunch is doubling—er, tripling—down, as the team also lost the first two games against its current opponent, the Phoenix Suns. That includes snatching defeat from the jaws of victory Tuesday night, when the final ten seconds of the game disintegrated into the Murphy’s Law of pro basketball. Star forward Paul George, a nearly 90 percent free throw shooter, missed a pair of free throws that would have all but iced the win. They failed to secure a rebound that should have locked things up. Then, with a one-point lead and less than a second on the clock, the team seemingly swallowed a gallon of sleepy-time tea and gave up a game-losing, alley-oop dunk.
So here they are, down 0-2 a third time, and oh, by the way, the Clippers’ best player, Kawhi Leonard, has not appeared in the past four games, and may be out the rest of the series because of a balky knee.
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Yet whether because of loyalty or insanity, we fans believe. In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has already happened, including when the Clips stormed back from a 25-point deficit in the second half of game six against the Utah Jazz for a series-clinching win. Now we’re expecting the impossibler, and if that’s not a word, so be it—all the old rules are out the window.
The entire NBA season, shaped and shaken by COVID, has been bizarre, and the playoffs have been even stranger. The top seeds in the East and West conferences both were felled in the second round. The Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, with their celeb-laden rosters, each got bounced. Stars in the postseason are going down with injuries like teenagers get filleted in horror films.
The Clippers are still here, and for as gut-ripping as the playoffs procession has been, the fan base has weathered worse, most notoriously the decades when the team was owned by the awful, tight-fisted Donald Sterling. If anyone has the fortitude to withstand surprise and ineptitude, it’s the crew known as Clipper Nation—then again, compared to the mass love of the Lakers in Los Angeles, a more apt moniker might be Clipper Hamlet. But that’s OK, as there’s something of a hard-bitten pride in rooting for L.A.’s “other” team.
The truth is, there is a lot to root for, and legit reasons not to give up hope. The culture of the franchise has taken a 180-degree turn since Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion for the team in 2014. This shift, combined with the willingness to spend money smartly and build stability, is what allowed the Clippers to stun the basketball world in the summer of 2019 by signing Leonard as a free agent and trading for George. Last year’s choke job in the COVID playoff bubble in Orlando, when the team gave up a 3-1 series lead in the second round against Denver, was infuriating. Yet it had a silver lining in leading to the ouster of coach Doc Rivers and the hiring of Tyronn Lue—Rivers just did Rivers by sticking with stumbling players as his new team, the 76ers, blew a series against the underdog Atlanta Hawks. Meanwhile, Lue has craftily responded to opponents, tweaking his lineups, pivoting on in-game matchups and guiding the team to victories few experts expected.
It’s that resilience that has Clippers fans still believing even with the third consecutive two-game deficit. With Leonard out, big performances have come from unexpected places—guard Reggie Jackson has been terrific. Second-year pro Terance Mann had the game of his young life in the Utah clincher, scoring 39 points. And though he whiffed at the free throw line on Tuesday, the Clippers are still alive only because George has otherwise been brilliant this postseason.
Beating the Suns won’t be easy, but with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and many of the NBA’s biggest stars watching games from the couch, the Clippers have their best chance ever at a title. I’m heading to the downtown arena tonight for a game that by its very existence is momentous. If Clipper Hamlet is fortunate, then more history awaits.
The Los Angeles Clippers play the Phoenix Suns tonight, Thursday, June 24, at 6 p.m. PST.
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