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HOUSTON – One by one, the Los Angeles Clippers trudged off the Toyota Center floor and through a concrete corridor toward the losing locker room. From eyes empty to eyes enraged, a colossal collapse had conspired for a collision of confusion and contempt. Doc Rivers marched out dropping F-bombs. Chris Paul stared straight, silent. Steve Ballmer, gaunt and speechless.
Off one of its great victories and onto one of its greatest humiliations, this franchise found itself on familiar footing: back on the defensive, back on the brink.
"We took too long to get over the intoxication of beating the Spurs," Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports late Sunday afternoon. "I never thought we gave Houston the same focus that we gave the Spurs. Even though we were up 3-1, I never felt that way.
"We stepped back instead of going forward."
This was on Rivers, too, and he knew it. This was on the general manager and the coach, the way it was on the superstars Paul and Blake Griffin. Everyone has to own this one. In professional sports, victory can be fleeting, but failures fester.
As galvanizing as the victory over the San Antonio Spurs had been for the Clippers, these three consecutive dizzying losses to the Houston Rockets threaten franchise destabilization. For now, the Clippers have to rage against their own unraveling.
"Once the ball started rolling down the hill, we couldn't stop it," Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "And I thought the ball started rolling down the hill in Game 5. I thought that was the one game we just didn't perform. It's like we felt like we had something, like we had other games. I kept trying to get us to [understand], 'We only have one home game.'
"It's different when you're up 3-1 with home-court advantage. Now, you have two home games. When you have one home game, you can't [bleep] around with games.
"… They got a little confident and then obviously we had the Game 6 debacle."
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey stopped to shake Doc Rivers' hand on Sunday evening, and the two embraced. "There's relief and there's pain, that's all there is at this point," Morey told him, and Rivers nodded.
"You guys did a great job," Rivers said.
As the Rockets reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1997, it was as much an organizational success as the Clippers' collapse had been an organizational failure. From management to coaching to, most of all, the players' performance, the Rockets validated a vision in this series.
James Harden had a genius Game 7 – 31 points, seven rebounds and eight assists – but the Rockets won without him dominating the series. Houston survived the injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas with three regular-season acquisitions that turned out to be immense: Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni. Morey let Chandler Parsons walk on a max deal to Dallas, signing Trevor Ariza on a discount and sparing his franchise the salary-cap hell that belongs to the Clippers now.
When everyone believed that coach Kevin McHale needed to advance deep into these playoffs to secure his standing, owner Les Alexander and Morey gave him a three-year extension in December as a significant show of faith. As it turns out, McHale was the perfect coach for these Rockets, and never let them give up on themselves. When some want McHale to hold a stronger hand over this roster, he's shown a deft touch to walk that line between rigidness and freedom.
The Rockets move onto the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, and the Clippers move into the summer with an anvil hanging over the franchise. DeAndre Jordan will become an unrestricted free agent, and it'll take a five-year, $100 million max contract to re-sign him.
The Dallas Mavericks are chief among several significant suitors, and the questions for Jordan are these: Does he want a larger offensive role elsewhere, and does he think the organization can win a championship with the co-existence of Paul and Griffin?
"You can't take anything for granted, but DJ loves being a Clipper," Rivers told Yahoo. "DJ loves being here. We have an amazing relationship."
Once the Clippers make him the franchise's third max player, they're paralyzed to make the roster much better. Nevertheless, Rivers insists the Clippers don't need an overhaul of the Big Three, but an upgrade of the role players surrounding them.
"That belief doesn't change at all," Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "I want to do it with them. I want them to do it together. When I took the job, that's one of the things I told them: We're going to win together, we're going to lose together. There will be no life raft.
"It's hard with the contracts. I came here with a great collection of talent, but contractually it's now difficult to make a lot of changes. We aren't going to add any big pieces, but we've got to add the right pieces around those guys."
Between then and now, the Clippers will catch a lot of hell. They deserve it, just like they did the praise of beating the Spurs. There are no parades for winning first-round series, especially in Los Angeles. "The Clippers are still the Clippers," Magic Johnson gleefully tweeted on Sunday. Truth be told, the Lakers are the Clippers now. The Lakers franchise is in shambles, gutted of talent, devoid of direction and desperate for the bounce of a pingpong ball at Tuesday night's draft lottery in New York.
The Clippers won 56 regular-season games, supplanted San Antonio and fumbled away three chances for the franchise to finally reach the Western Conference finals. The ending was a disaster, but it needn't linger forever. There was no Clippers Curse causing this season to fall apart, just an organizational failure that needs to be owned from Blake Griffin to Chris Paul to Doc Rivers. This isn't the end of the Clippers world, only the end of the season.
For now, this is familiar footing for the franchise: back on the defensive, the Clippers back on the brink.
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