It speaks volumes of the Los Angeles Clippers’ collapse in the Western Conference Semifinals that their triumph one round earlier has been all but completely forgotten.
After Chris Paul and company dethroned the defending champions with an epic Game 7 win, it went without saying personal and organizational playoff demons of the past had been exorcised. A team like the San Antonio Spurs doesn’t get beaten by accident, and Los Angeles’ first four games against the Houston Rockets only lent further credence to that notion.
There’s no single reason for Los Angeles’ sudden demise. It’s easy to single out Thursday’s historic loss as the turning point, but the Clippers also let Game 2 slip away despite a similarly commanding lead. Paul will face the same type of narrative scrutiny he does annually this time of year; Blake Griffin is due major criticism after a strangely despondent Game 7 performance; and Doc Rivers will be vilified for consistently poor roster-building that ensured his team’s supporting cast would be the worst of any contender.
And a lot that of wholesale judgement will be just. Los Angeles should be in a posh San Francisco hotel at the moment, awaiting a Tuesday game against the Golden State Warriors instead of making the extra long flight back to Southern California from Houston.
The Rockets were certainly relentless in overcoming a 3-1 deficit to win this series. James Harden played like the MVP when it mattered most, Josh Smith made his season far more memorable than for his dismissal from Detroit, and Dwight Howard regained the form so many were certain he’d lost forever. Houston deserves the opportunity to play for a championship.
Make no mistake, though. The Rockets only have that chance because the Clippers basically begged them to take it. What Rivers will have to decide going forward is why that proved the case.
How can a team go from looking championship worthy to downright dismal in a matter of days? The answer is that Los Angeles’ crumple isn’t about the emotional or physical alone – but something smack dab in the middle.
The prevailing notion was that a team guided by Paul would be too strong-willed and cerebral for a failure of this magnitude. That enough of the Point God’s desire and dedication would rub off on his teammates for the Clippers to avoid major pitfalls, or even that his personal attributes alone might prevent them. His surreal elimination game performance versus the Spurs lent that belief even further credence, too.
But it’s simply not true. The possibility for a certain kind of player to singularly elevate his team indeed exists, and Paul is still one of few talented enough to do so. It’s just not happening with this Los Angeles group, though, making it easy to wonder if it ever will. Perhaps the negative effects of Paul’s maniacal drive and intensity are what we saw from the timid, skittish Clippers late in Game 6 and throughout Game 7.
Griffin said as much indirectly.
He’s not lying, either. It was plainly obvious throughout the postseason how much Griffin wanted a ring. Whether it was his uptick in overall impact compared to the regular season or even his visible – and sometimes audible – reaction to plays that didn’t go his team’s way, Griffin exhibited fervor we hadn’t seen from him on a consistent basis during his first five years in the league.
But that all-out ferocity took its toll on the 25 year-old, too. Griffin shot a dismal 35.8 percent from the field during playoff fourth quarters despite making 51.1 percent of his shots overall. Shouldering incredibly heavy loads of playmaking, rebounding, and defensive responsibilities was just too much for him in the long run, a reality confirmed by his play in Game 7.
Griffin was gassed almost from the opening tip on Sunday, failing to finish shots he normally does with ease and routinely making mistakes on the other end that have long been in his rearview mirror. Especially damning were a pair of first quarter Houston transition baskets on which he barely managed a jog up the floor, and a possession during Los Angeles’ futile last-gasp run when he refused to look at the rim despite the defense keying on J.J. Redick and leaving him wide open from 20 feet.
Yet he was still a revelation in the playoffs, reminding the basketball world of why some considered him to be basketball’s best power forward before 2014-2015 tipped-off. And as Griffin enters his sixth season next year, there are still steps for his game to take – most importantly the steep one of bearing his postseason onus on a nightly basis.
They alone, however, won’t be enough to put the Clippers over the hump in a Western Conference that stands to be more loaded than ever before. Rivers desperately needs to upgrade his roster this summer, but has scant means to do so. Los Angeles doesn’t carry a first-round pick in the 2015 draft and will only have the tax payer’s midlevel exception to lure free agents, assuming it signs DeAndre Jordan to a max-level contract.
And that’s where the future of this team most hangs in the balance. Does Rivers believe the Clippers can win biggest with a triumvirate of Paul, Griffin, and Jordan? All signs since he took the job two years ago have always suggested the affirmative, and Rivers indicated the same after the game.
Los Angeles still has time on its side. Paul and J.J. Redick, both 30 years-old, are the franchise’s only core players even on the downside of their primes, and both stand to age gracefully. Griffin and Jordan will improve incrementally at the very least, and Austin Rivers and 2014 first-rounder C.J. Wilcox certainly have room to grow – and the Clippers need them to do so more rapidly than the play of either in his brief career has hinted is realistic.
Winning a title is hard, and the Clippers were one of a handful of teams that had legitimate aspirations of doing so throughout the year. Just a few days ago, those hopes seemed more achievable than at any other point in franchise history.
They’re gone now, of course, replaced by earned feelings of anguish the likes of which only a select few players in league history understand. For Los Angeles, a silver-lining is that this horrible feeling could help the players overcome the mental instability that doomed them. That Paul, Griffin, and the rest have reached a place they know extends no lower and will play like it when pressure mounts in future spring and early summer tilts.
Then again, the same was likely said when this same group somehow squandered the chance for a 3-2 lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2014 Western Conference Semifinals. Maybe the Curse is real after all.
Either way, the Clippers will certainly be back to try and fight it off in 2015-2016. And unfortunately, they won’t get the chance to do so until this very time next year. What Los Angeles does between now and then, though, will go a long way in deciding whether or not it can.