Nothing has ever come easily during the Clippers’ 50-year history.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1984, they had losing records in 22 of their next 25 seasons.
When they did, eventually, reach the playoffs with regularity, their appearances were short-lived and often ended with heartache.
The Clippers began assembling a roster to change that with one stroke, 14 months ago. Hours before they simultaneously traded for star forward Paul George and signed reigning Finals most valuable player Kawhi Leonard, a 7.1 earthquake ripped through the California desert and shut down the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas. In hindsight, it felt like a harbinger of the Clippers’ stated intent to shake up the league.
And yet, after Sunday’s 111-98 defeat to Denver in Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal, it’s the Clippers who are on unsteady ground after allowing a double-digit lead to disappear for a second consecutive loss.
After leading by 19 early in the third quarter, the Clippers were outscored 62-30 during the final 22 minutes.
“We've just got to go back to the film and see what we are doing, and why aren't we matching them,” said George, who scored a team-high 33 points. “I think that's the only question that needs to be answered is why aren't we matching them.”
As the Clippers froze, the irrepressible Nuggets, who had spent the last two days describing themselves as loose and relaxed, appeared undaunted by the moment en route to winning their fifth consecutive game this postseason when facing elimination.
“Maybe it sounds funny, but we don’t care,” said Nikola Jokic, the center who burned the Clippers for 34 points. “We were having fun.”
Instead of advancing to face the Lakers in the first postseason series between the teams, the Clippers lost for the seventh consecutive time when given a chance to advance to their first conference finals — a streak that began in 1975 when the team was still the Buffalo Braves.
Intent on changing that history, the Clippers went all-in by surrounding Leonard and George with the NBA’s deepest roster. And yet there were few dependable options for a second straight second half. Leonard and George made six of 21 field goals after halftime and the rest of the roster combined to make four of 17.
“We went cold in that third quarter,” said Leonard, who scored 25 points. “That’s it. We kept getting to the paint, passing the ball, got a little stagnant and just couldn’t make shots.”
Jokic and Murray made 11 of 18 shots after halftime, even as Murray grimaced in pain throughout the final two quarters after falling hard to the court early in the half.
But the stars’ contributions were buttressed by Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, unlikely offensive sources who made nine of 12 field goals. As the Nuggets made shots, the Clippers no longer could grab defensive rebounds and push upcourt for easy baskets. They scored 10 fast-break points over the final three quarters after scoring 10 in transition during the first 12 minutes. Their first-half tempo bogged down into second-half isolations.
“Our offense let us down,” coach Doc Rivers said.
The Clippers’ finish was all the more surprising given they had weathered an earlier Denver push with surgical precision, the kind of focus that suggested they learned their lesson from losing a 16-point lead in Game 5.
When Denver cut its 12-point deficit early in the second quarter to two with five minutes left before halftime, the Clippers finished the half with a smothering 16-2 run.
It capped a half in which Rivers made key adjustments to limit his team’s weaknesses. By extending starting center Ivica Zubac’s minutes and making JaMychal Green the first frontcourt substitute off the bench, the Clippers signaled they wanted to avoid situations in which backup center Montrezl Harrell guarded Jokic, a matchup that Jokic had shot 71% against entering Game 6.
In the second half, stuck with Harrell in matchups against Jokic, they were outscored by 15 in his eight second-half minutes, continuing a postseason in which the sixth man of the year has yet to consistently generate the energy and efficiency that made him the NBA’s top reserve.
Rivers conceded Harrell has been “up and down” but defended the usage by saying Zubac needed to play better as well.
“We have to get better play out of both of them — yeah, I get that,” Rivers said. “But when you sometimes watch the game and then add up that minus and see if he was involved in it, you know, it does happen sometimes. So just watch it first before we make that critique.”
In saying that he liked the Clippers’ odds to win Game 7, George stressed that the roster’s confidence remains intact.
The same can’t be said about their control over the series.
Three observations on the Clippers
Losing large leads has been a problem all season, so how can the Clippers fix it in fewer than two days? “We need to keep our focus, still run our plays, execute, and don't be lazy on defense,” Leonard said.
Why was backup guard Reggie Jackson, who played one minute in the previous two games, inserted with 7:21 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Clippers trailing by two? Rivers “needed someone to make a shot, because we weren’t doing that.” Jackson was removed, however, within 56 seconds.
Zubac scored a playoff-low two points, making one of six shots, but grabbed 12 rebounds and was the only Clipper to finish with a positive plus/minus (11).