Disappointment, frustration, lack of chemistry: Portrait of the Clippers’ collapse

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — There’s a road that surrounds the entire property of Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, where the top eight teams — decided by regular-season records — were assigned to stay in the NBA’s bubble.

One lap around the property is 1.7 miles, and you’ll find numerous executives and coaches jogging or walking the trail each morning, from Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to Los Angeles Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank to Denver Nuggets brass Tim Connelly and Calvin Booth, just to name a few.

And then there’s Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who maniacally sprints the track on a road bike in the sweltering heat and humidity as if he’s participating in the Tour de France.

The 49-year-old zips through the course with blazing speed and then periodically pulls over to the side of the road and starts doing pushups at a frantic pace. His energy level is insane, but after his strenuous workouts, he’s relaxed, and that calm spreads to his team.

“Just have fun,” Nuggets star Nikola Jokic said on TV during his walkout interview after Denver’s Game 6 win over the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs. “We don’t have pressure. I think the whole pressure is on them.”

Clippers star Paul George attempted to dismiss the pressure narrative, claiming they were in control even after blowing a 3-1 lead with a decisive Game 7 looming.

The Los Angeles Clippers players sit on the bench during the second half as they fall to the Denver Nuggets in an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“We’re still in the driver’s seat,” George said after Game 6. “It's not a panic mode.”

The Nuggets had proven they were capable of defying the odds and advancing despite a 3-1 deficit, doing it in the first round against the Utah Jazz. Considering there’s no home-court advantage in the bubble, George’s remark was a bit of a head-scratcher.

The Clippers are arguably the most talented team from top to bottom, but their chemistry was among the worst of the bubble teams. They could never find the relaxed calm to persevere and perform. And it was proven throughout the series, punctuated by an embarrassing display in which the Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 series deficits in the same postseason and advance, ousting the Clippers with a 104-89 win Tuesday night.

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray outscored Kawhi Leonard and George 40-24 in Game 7. Leonard finished with 14 points on 6-of-22 shooting, and George shot 4-of-16 for 10 points. The Clippers scored 33 points in the second half and didn’t convert a fourth quarter field goal until there was just 4:58 left.

The rapport simply wasn’t there for the Clippers, and it certainly wasn’t there in Game 2 when Montrezl Harrell and George got into a heated verbal exchange during a timeout, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Early in the second quarter, a struggling George had committed two careless turnovers in less than a minute. The second mishap was a half-court pass to Harrell, who was near the paint but surrounded by Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

Murray picked off the pass. Seconds later, the Clippers called a timeout.

Harrell approached his teammate about the risky pass, with George not taking responsibility and arguing the pass could have been caught had Harrell made the right play, sources said.

This set off the NBA Sixth Man of the Year.

Harrell responded with something along the lines of, “You’re always right. Nobody can tell you nothing,” and expletives were uttered from both players, sources said. George eventually toned down his rhetoric, but a heated Harrell wasn’t having it. Teammates began clapping on the sideline, in part to disguise what was going on and in an attempt to defuse the situation. The incident deescalated shortly after as coach Doc Rivers took his seat to go over the game plan.

The Clippers were not on the same page off the court either. After the Game 7 loss, George said, “I think internally, we always felt this was not a championship or bust year for us.”

George was the only player to convey that thought. Rivers and the players acknowledged the goal was to win a championship this year.

Those expectations weren’t a secret, and throughout the regular season, Clippers players kept reminding the public of that lofty goal in numerous interviews.

“We got to get smarter,” Leonard said about how the team can improve for next season, emphasizing basketball IQ.

The two stars — Leonard and George — are under contract for one more year, and then they each have player options for the 2021-22 season. Rivers is rightfully being criticized for his lack of adjustments in the series, but discourse on his job status is premature at the moment.

Playing for Rivers was a major component in Leonard joining the Clippers. Rivers will be running it back next season, sources said.

But the pressure is on, and the franchise will presumably have to go about things in a more diligent manner next year. The Clippers rubbed opposing teams the wrong way by publicly voicing that their time is now and taking games and practices off in the regular season, believing they could just turn it on when it mattered most because of their abundance of depth. But the most hyped Clippers team in history failed to produce when it was time.

There’s no strength in numbers without chemistry.

“A lot of the issues we ran into, talent bailed us out. Chemistry didn’t,” Clippers reserve Lou Williams said.

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