Just when you’re ready to believe in these Los Angeles Clippers, they give you the vibes of everything this franchise has never been.
It’s like they look around the locker room and see their own talent, believing teams are supposed to sign up with a blindfold at the first sign of adversity.
It’s almost like they looked at the Denver Nuggets and expected them to be the Houston Rockets.
It seemed like they’d finally gotten their act together, looking across the way at the inevitable matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers and decided they weren’t going to fool around with a team that didn’t know any better.
But the Nuggets showed, affectionately, that they’re too stupid to know better. Too familiar with dire straits to just give into a team that didn’t seem intent on taking it from them.
And the Clippers are too unfamiliar with themselves as a collective unit, sometimes a little too cool when opponents get too close and now they find themselves playing unnecessary games after allowing too much room in the fourth quarter of their 111-105 Game 5 loss.
The only thing standing in the way of a dream matchup with the Lakers was a ho-hum second half. Veteran teams see youngsters on the ropes and take the will from them, letting them know they’ll be better for taking this ‘Tussin now, shake their hands and send them on their way.
But for their talent — and goodness is it glorious when they put it together for stretches of time — nobody fears these Clippers. Kawhi Leonard as an individual is feared and for the better part of 36 minutes, he looked like a man on a mission, ready for a seven-game tete-a-tete with LeBron James in a matchup nobody would deny wanting.
But right when the Clippers were ready to eat their instant grits, they forgot the sugar and put salt in it, producing a bitter taste authored by Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, who clearly weren’t ready to go home.
Losing to these talented Nuggets is no cause for panic on its face; but giving up 38 points in the fourth quarter when it appeared you were a veteran team handling its business now looks like a squad on cruise control.
"We definitely lost our discipline,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “There is no doubt about that.”
Rivers wore that forlorn look on his face in the final minute, after would’ve-been draft pick Michael Porter Jr. saved face with some heavy and tough defensive plays that didn’t seem likely given how the series played out.
It’s not the curse of Donald Sterling or V. Stiviano, nothing nefarious from their past holding them back. And it’s likely it won’t haunt them in this series, as smart money says they’ll put them away in Game 6, as Leonard said, the Clippers “can learn a lesson” from this collapse.
But it’s not about getting out of the second round or even making it to the conference finals. The Clippers are somehow on the seesaw from shutting up all their critics who believed their laissez-faire approach to the regular season would bite them later or validating those who believed good habits are developed during the regular season and exercised in the playoffs.
Honestly, it’s neither extreme. Leonard took a lot of heat for his conservative health plan but was on track to play at least 70 games, and they were always within striking distance of the Lakers — with homecourt advantage not at stake considering they play in the same building.
But the habits are annoying and if there’s a cause for borderline panic, it’s some of the indecision late.
Leonard and Paul George delivered on the stat sheet, with the belief that as long as those two were in line it would be impossible for one of the parched Clippers to take up too many easy calories.
But Lou Williams froze late, and there were too many extra passes, not enough assertiveness and what’s worse, the lack of recognition on the Nuggets being desperate and fighting for their playoff lives.
How much more can Leonard do? A superstar of the highest order, he can win a game on his own while also playing his best and it not being enough. That has little to do with his so-called availability and more to do with his teammates not realizing what’s at stake.
“I mean, teams make runs all the time,” Leonard said. “You know, they know what they want to do. Like I said before, they got a good coach. Got two All-Star caliber players over there and they are going to keep fighting.”
Murray looked shook, until he shook out of it, and Jokic stayed steady, even through his six turnovers. The Clippers took shortcuts, as if this isn’t a team full of veterans ready for a championship run and at the least, a shot at the favored Lakers.
“So at the end of the day, you definitely learn ... I thought discipline, defensively, was far worse than our discipline offensively, I will say that,” Rivers admitted.
The “Fun Guy” Leonard calmly said the Clippers should have fun in Game 6, as if to intimate they shouldn’t get tight and their talent is good enough.
Their talent is good enough, and the problem is they know it too.
They just haven’t passed the memo onto their competition.
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