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The Clipper Curse lives.
The hex that has haunted this team since it arrived unwanted and unloved in Los Angeles 35 years ago rose up again Tuesday night with its most chilling ramifications yet.
The monumental Hallway Series is dead, and the Clipper Curse killed it.
The historic NBA Western Conference finals playoff battle between the Lakers and Clippers is over before it started because the Clipper Curse got there first.
Needing a win against the overmatched Denver Nuggets team Tuesday to advance to play the Lakers in the postseason for the first time, the Clippers blew a double-digit lead for a third straight game and stunningly lost a series, a season and a chance to shake off a bit of their horrid past.
Instead, on a gloomy night filled with an underachievement that felt so familiar, that history was embraced in all its black-and-red gory.
In a quarantined gym near Orlando, Fla., the Nuggets blew out the Clippers in crunch time, won the deciding Game 7 in the conference semifinals 104-89, and will now play the Lakers for a spot in the NBA Finals.
“That hurts, that hurts,” repeated a somber Clippers’ Paul George afterward. “It hurts, it hurts.”
Don’t look now, but by being easily the best team remaining in the NBA’s final four — which includes Boston, Miami and Denver — those Lakers may have just won a 17th title. Meanwhile, though, the Los Angeles sports landscape loses what would have been a delicious bite of drama.
There will be no Battle for L.A. There will be no City Championship. There will be no chance for a long-awaited postseason collision between two teams that have spent much of their lives uncomfortably circling each other while hoping for this moment.
Once again, in flashbacks to the days of Donald Sterling and Michael Olowokandi and the rat-infested Sports Arena, the Clippers ruined everything. Yes, they’ve been embarrassing before, but, in losing a three-games-to-one lead despite having a team favored by many to win the NBA title, they’ve never quite blown it like this.
They are endowed by Steve Ballmer, the richest and arguably best owner in the NBA, and they still blew it.
They have Kawhi Leonard and George, two of the top 10 players in the league, and they still blew it
They have new uniforms, a new destination culture, plans for a new $1.2-billion arena project, and they still blew it.
The perception is that it’s a brand-new organization. The reality is that it’s the same old Clippers. The truth is that the Clipper Curse has never seemed more real.
Even the hardened Los Angeles sports fans, long immune to the Clipper troubles, will have difficulty forgetting this one. Despite all of the team’s improvements, this loss will cost it any chance of gaining any sort of increased foothold in a market whose affections they so desperately crave.
It will also cost the city a chance to experience a series with a magnitude unmatched in these parts. The Dodgers and Angels have never played each other in a World Series. USC and UCLA have never played each other for a football championship or in the NCAA basketball tournament. The Kings and Ducks have met once in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it was in the second round, not the conference finals.
Although the Lakers and Clippers have met 224 times in the regular season — the Lakers hold a 150-74 edge — they had never met on this stage, and it was going to be nuts.
Oops. The sports event of the year just got Clippered.
Their latest crumble began Friday, when the Clippers led the Nuggets three games to one and needed just one victory to advance to the conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s 50 years, a drought that is the longest in American sports history.
That night they blew a 16-point lead and lost. Two days later they blew a 19-point lead and lost. Then they showed up Tuesday and blew a 12-point first-half lead by being outscored 50 to 33 in the second half.
And all over Los Angeles, Lakers fans are saying, “I told you so.”
They’ve seen this before. They’ve seen this so many times before.
The Clippers arrived here in 1984 and had losing records in 22 of their first 25 seasons. During that time their haplessness was epitomized by the fact that they somehow blew two chances to acquire Kobe Bryant. They passed on him first in the 1996 draft, then years later Bryant left them at the altar after verbally committing to join them as a free agent.
In recent years, even as their star power has increased, so has their incompetence.
Their infamously failed “Lob City” team of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin blew a three-games-to-one lead to the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals in 2015.
A year earlier, amid the furor of the NBA banning owner Sterling for racist remarks, the team collapsed in the semifinals against Oklahoma City.
But this season was supposed to be different. This season was supposed to be special.
Their rich and gifted squad raced to a second-place finish behind the Lakers in the Western Conference while gaining a reputation as the deepest roster in the league.
And they have gregarious coach Doc Rivers. Doesn’t everyone love Doc Rivers?
“We've got to play free, we've got to play hard, we’ve got to play smart,” Rivers told his team before Tuesday’s game.
Turns out, they did none of that consistently, and the blame for this finally has to fall on, yeah, Doc Rivers. He’s the one constant in all their recent collapses. Throughout Tuesday’s second half, as with those other collapses, they again looked unprepared and out of sorts.
When the pressure rose, the Clippers wilted. They stopped taking good shots. They stopped playing good defense. The Nuggets were focused, the Clippers were lost.
“I’m the coach, and I’ll take the blame for it,” Rivers said afterward. “I mean, listen, obviously I could have done something more. I always think it’s me, no matter what.”
It was also others, notably two others. Leonard and George went a combined 10-for-38. Both were scoreless in a fourth quarter during which the Clippers made six baskets. Their trademark defense lapsed and allowed the Nuggets, particularly young stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, to run the court at will.
The Clippers insist that with all the new parts this season, and with several players moving in and out of Orlando’s bubble for family reasons, they never had a chance to find themselves.
“We did have championship expectations, we had the talent to do it,” said guard Lou Williams, who continued his disappointing playoff play with just seven points. “I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it, and it showed.”
But Williams also cited the obvious, the one fact that will stick with a city’s sports fans as they wonder what might have been.
“We were up 3 to 1. … We should have closed it out, and we didn’t,” he said.
No, once again, it was closed upon them, the Clipper Curse forcefully undeniable, forever undefeated.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.