This shouldn’t have to end, and the Los Angeles Clippers don’t have to when it does.
Not because the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs are victims of the league’s arbitrary rules on playoff seeding of division winners, and not even due to the increasingly obvious reality that both clubs would be worthy title-winners. But players like Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, and company simply merit better than an early playoff exit – or for that matter, any season-ending disappointment whatsoever.
The Spurs beat the Clippers 111-107 in Game 5, taking a 3-2 stranglehold on an already epic first-round series as it heads back to San Antonio for an elimination contest less than 48 hours from now. Tuesday’s game was wildly intense, extremely well played, and overflowing with drama from the opening tip.
Los Angeles jumped out to a 14-point lead late in the first quarter only to surrender it entirely as less than three minutes ticked off the game clock. Gregg Popovich’s club took the life out of Staples Center in the third quarter by intentionally sending DeAndre Jordan to the free throw line 10 times and turning a one-point deficit into a three-point advantage. But the Clippers roared back behind a suddenly re-energized Blake Griffin and tied the game at 82-82 on Austin Rivers’ double-clutch bank-shot as the quarter’s buzzer sounded.
And then we learned all of the earlier proceedings were just preamble to 12 minutes of basketball that bordered on surreal.
Glen Davis nearly imploded after winning his team an offensive rebound.
Chris Paul set the basketball world ablaze by doing this to Danny Green.
Boris Diaw gave the Spurs a 105-98 lead with 2:50 remaining on a one-footed prayer as the shot clock expired.
That should have been the game. San Antonio has sucked the life out of teams in similar situations for 17 years running, and all current momentum suggested it would do exactly what millions watching knew it would. But this series and the Clippers are too good for that.
Doc Rivers’ squad was suddenly within two 79 seconds later after Jordan scraped the ceiling to throw down a lob from Griffin.
Not a single basket was scored from there – San Antonio made four free throws to Los Angeles’ two. And the way the Spurs held the Clippers off was a classic blend of player performance and fortunate bounces, the kind that lends credence to the air of near invincibility they’ve carried as long as adolescents can remember.
39-year-old Duncan stonewalled Griffin’s floater and Diaw ripped his opponent’s follow-up.
And after Paul was tripped by Leonard and Griffin’s improvisation off the in-bounds pass missed, officials deemed Jordan’s tap offensive goaltending to keep San Antonio up 108-107 with just over four seconds remaining.
Make no mistake – the Spurs deserve a win. They outscored Los Angeles by 30 from beyond the arc and made 28-of-37 freebies compared to the Clippers’ 26-of-42. The champions simply made more shots all game long and made more plays when it mattered most.
But that doesn’t mean Los Angeles deserves a loss.
This game is the best and worst of the playoffs at its essence, and the series as a whole is, too – no matter which team will emerges victorious. Only one NBA team can win its last game this season or any other, for that matter, rendering all those that fail to do so different variations of loser.
And watching Game 5, it was never more readily apparent that each man involved was refusing to accept that inevitability. You could see it on Duncan’s face, Paul’s entire body, and in the collectively unceasing belief of everyone from Popovich and Doc Rivers to their staffs’.
But that mortality looks like it’s coming for Los Angeles.
Regardless of where your legions lie, basketball fans should agree it’s a shame what’s to follow the Spurs’ Game 5 triumph. Not that they didn’t deserve to prevail, but the onus now falls on the Clippers to win Game 6 in San Antonio. Barring a victory on the Spurs’ home court Thursday night, Los Angeles’ year will come to a close with another failure to advance deep in to spring.
And what’s really going to twist us in knots – assuming San Antonio takes care of business, of course – is that a Clippers loss in Game 6 might spell the end of this group’s nucleus.
DeAndre Jordan is a free agent and Jamal Crawford has one year left on his contract – a non-guaranteed $5.3 million that’s easily moved. The former will surely get a max-level offer from a competing team this summer, and the Clippers might not want to tie up so much money for an offensively limited center who’s sometimes a late-game scratch because of free throw woes.
The real loss for the Clippers on Tuesday, basically, might not even be their worst one.
Because this is the first round, people will overreact if they end up losing Game 6, and this entirely lovely thing happening in Los Angeles won’t ever get the sustained chance for ultimate glory its talent and performance warrants. Paul, Griffin, Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Matt Barnes can win a championship.
They just happened to face-off against a club that might be basketball’s best at exactly the wrong time.
But if Game 5 began the death of the Clippers, they’re certainly going out with grace. Never have they a been more convincing title contender than at this very moment, and it’s because they’ve played the defending champs basically even through five epic battles.
We wish this series didn’t have to end. And when it does and if Los Angeles is the one going home, we hope it brings the band back together. There can only be a single champion, and the Clippers have shown they have it takes to eventual become it – even in a likely “losing” effort.