The hugs were quick, the goodbyes brief, the exit silent.
Wordless, and with thousand-yard stares, the Clippers left the court quietly Tuesday night.
The words came later.
“We’re pissed off,” guard Lou Williams said.
Assembled 14 months ago with an explicit goal of winning a championship, the Clippers’ star-studded roster instead fell apart in stunning fashion in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal against Denver. The 104-89 loss marked their third consecutive game losing a double-digit lead and the latest, disastrous chapter to the franchise’s 50-year history of playoff misery.
It wasn’t only a 3-1 series lead that was blown. Gone too went perhaps the franchise’s best chance to win a title after the celebrated offseason additions of Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Finals most valuable player, and George, a former MVP candidate.
Carrying expectations of leading the Clippers to unprecedented heights all season, they instead were unable to rescue them from hitting this season’s nadir. Leonard scored 14 points, making six of 22 shots, and George added 10 points, making four of 16.
“It was obvious pressure to live up to the title expectations,” George said. “But as a player, I mean, you want that. Like, you want that. Again, it’s the first time I’ve been in that situation where we’re expected to win. But you know, it is what it is. It’s no cop-out. Fact of the matter is, we didn’t live up to that expectation.”
The Clippers retain membership in an ignominious club, with Charlotte and New Orleans as the only NBA franchises yet to reach a conference finals.
The Nuggets are on their way to face the Lakers because their stars dominated, again, when needed. Led by Jamal Murray’s 40 points and Nikola Jokic’s 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists, the Nuggets won their sixth consecutive elimination game to become the first team in NBA history to win multiple series when trailing 3-1.
All season, the West finals had been predicted to feature the Lakers and Clippers — teams that share an arena, and championship ambitions this season, but never faced one another in the postseason. Yet all season, there was an unanswered question about how they would get there: Could the Clippers blend their grit from the previous season with the talent of their current roster?
The answer, as seen throughout this series, was a resounding no.
The Clippers lost their final three games after leading by 16, 19 and 12 points, respectively. They were outscored 50-33 in the second half Tuesday.
“I’m the coach and I’ll take any blame for it,” said Doc Rivers, who has coached the most Game 7 losses in NBA history (eight), and the most blown 3-1 leads (three) too. “But we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly, because if we had, in my opinion, we’d still be playing.”
Rivers’ experience in deciding games had taught him the “whole thing” was making players feel free. Standing in the middle of his locker room before tipoff, he reiterated the message.
On many moments to start, the Clippers looked it. Double teams on Jokic held the 7-footer to four shots in the first half. Missing in action for most the series, the bench made its first seven shots, with Williams finding a cutting Montrezl Harrell for baskets like it was January.
Yet the Clippers weren’t free from their flaws.
Rivers made staying out of foul trouble a top priority, yet three quick fouls were called on George and center Ivica Zubac. Opportunities for easy baskets dried up — Denver’s 20 turnovers yielded only 15 points. Harrell’s offensive energy didn’t translate defensively, where he yet again struggled.
Déjà vu hit hardest, however, when a double-digit lead began slipping away. This time, their 12-point lead four minutes before halftime was unwound within seven minutes. After making five of its first six three-pointers of the second half, Denver led by eight, just 14 minutes from the conference finals.
The Clippers were told to play loose. Denver, whose core was playing in a fourth consecutive Game 7 and seemed to feed off its experience, actually did.
“We are just not accepting that somebody’s better than us,” Jokic said.
Wearing what he called “Johnny Cash black” sideline apparel, Denver coach Mike Malone watched as his team didn’t allow the Clippers to score a field goal in the final quarter until five minutes remained. The Clippers made one of their final 10 three-pointers.
JaMychal Green drove into the paint with 10 minutes to play but bounced a dunk off the back of the rim. The Clippers recovered the rebound, then threw the ball out of bounds. Their shoulders slumped. Even when Jokic, arguably the best player all series, sat for fourth-quarter rest, the Clippers couldn’t figure out how to make a dent in the lead.
“That’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots, or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots,” Leonard said. “We gotta know what exact spots we need to be, and you know, just gotta carry over and get smarter as a team. Get smarter. Basketball IQ got to get better.”
Rivers cited poor conditioning from players’ injuries and absences as hurting his rotations. His players blamed a lack of chemistry born out of so little time together. Tuesday was their 19th game at full strength.
“A lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry didn’t,” said Williams, who scored seven points. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short.”
The finality began sinking in during the fourth quarter. Down 15 points with eight minutes to play, players leaned in to listen to Rivers’ direction, aware there might only be few opportunities to do so again. Williams buried his face in a towel on the sideline, then spiked it to the court.
Greif reported from Los Angeles.