The Western Conference final remains the Promised Land, never to be visited, excruciatingly close but ever beyond the Clippers’ reach. This season was supposed to be different for them, with two-time NBA Finals most valuable player Kawhi Leonard aboard to carry them calmly through adversity and Paul George to set a standard of excellence at both ends of the floor, but it ended as too many before this have ended, in the second round and with the knowledge they could have and should have done more.
They went into the playoffs as favorites against Dallas and again against Denver. They left the playoffs with another failure on their record after they blew a gasket in the second half of their 104-89 loss to the resilient Nuggets and blew a 3-1 series lead. This was an utter collapse of mind and body, of breath and heart.
“I just think Denver beat us all around,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said during a video news conference with reporters. “For me right now, I’m in the place of giving Denver more credit and you guys can figure out where all the blame goes.”
Since he insisted on assigning blame, let’s start with Rivers himself, for stubbornly insisting on double-teaming Nikola Jokic most of the game. Jokic, who has the fine passing touch of a point guard, dished out 13 assists in a monstrous triple-double performance. Jamal Murray, left open on many of those double-teams, had 20 points in the second quarter and 40 points overall, with only four free throws.
Expectations were high for the Clippers. Ultimately, they fell short, whether because of all the lineups they had to play because of injuries and playoff-bubble absences or because of a lack of conditioning or something else.
Rivers said players’ conditioning was missing badly enough so that, “guys were asking to come out, so you had to do it, but that’s not typical for Game 7.” They should have been willing to leave everything they had on the floor. That’s another unrealized expectation.
“We didn’t meet them. That’s the bottom line,” Rivers said. “I’m the coach and I’ll take any blame for it, but we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly. Because if we had, in my opinion, we’d still be playing.”
Leonard (six for 22) and George (four for 16) were way off, most horribly in a stretch of 12 straight missed shots to end the third quarter and deep into the fourth quarter. That’s not why the Clippers moved heaven and earth and money and a raft of first-round draft picks to acquire them. George said the expectations weren’t too burdensome for them.
“It’s obvious pressure to live up to title expectations but as a player you want that. You want that,” he said. “First time I’ve been in that situation where we’re expected to win.
“But it is what it is. It’s no cop-out. The fact of matter is we didn’t live up to the expectations, but I think internally we felt this is not a championship or bust year for us.”
Rivers didn’t single George and Leonard out for blame. “Game 7s are a make-miss game at the end of the day. I don’t think it was those two,” he said. “I think as a group. It wasn’t just those two. If you look at our shot quality it was pretty dang good, but the ball didn’t go in, and on those nights you hoped that you could lean on your defense and I just didn’t think, even though numbers say we were a good defensive team, I just didn’t think we ever realized that part of our game at all.”
The Nuggets had a lot to do with that as they became the only NBA team to recover from a 3-1 series deficit twice in one postseason. “We found a way to be a really good team three times,” coach Michael Malone said.
In this series, that was more than enough to beat the Clippers. “We did have championship expectations and we had the talent to do it. I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it and it showed,” Lou Williams said.
“We had lapses on defense and on offense … it showed. But at the end of the day, we were up 3-1. We had two opportunities to win games, we were up 20 points. We should have closed this deal out and we didn’t, so you give credit to Denver for continuing to play and we take our lumps and we keep moving.”
They’ll hurt for a while. They should. They talked of improving their chemistry in the future by staying together, by becoming as instinctual as the Nuggets were, and that sounded good but who’s to say they won’t have to deal with injuries next season too? They faced adversity and blinked, and that’s something to be concerned about.
“Guys had to go home for rightful reasons. And we missed a lot of valuable time together. With injuries in the regular season and inside the bubble, we didn’t get much time to be together,” George said. “This was the longest stretch that I think we have played together, but it wasn’t enough. I think in this series, it showed.”
Denver’s a team that’s been playing together a long time.” When things got rough, when they needed this or they needed that, they just know each other. They’ve been on a string for so long and I think it showed.”
The Clippers’ shortcomings showed up too. They played themselves out of that long-anticipated West final showdown with the Lakers, and they’ll have to come to terms with another failure in a history of them. “We’ve been very optimistic about us being together and building something down the road,” George said. But they had two chances to build something this year and they didn’t, and they have to live with that.
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.