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Clippers Run Out Of Miracles

It was early in the second quarter of Game 6, and the Clippers had sprinted out to a 16-point lead over the Thunder.  Everything was going their way.  The Oklahoma City Thunder looked disorganized, playing as if resigned to a Game 7.  But one man didn’t like what he saw: Doc Rivers.  “I thought we came out with a lot of emotion to start the game, and I turned to one of my coaches and said, ‘I don’t know if I like this,’ Rivers recalled after the game.  “I was concerned they were going to hit the wall.”

Rivers was right.  The Clippers were never able to sustain the momentum of those first 15 minutes.  They spent the rest of the game waiting for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to take over, and eventually, after a slow start, they did.  In a rampaging performance, Durant flashed his MVP chops with 39 points (25 in the second half), 14 rebounds, and 5 assists, and the mercurial Westbrook capped off a wondrous series with a 10-point fourth quarter and 17 second-half points.   In the end, the Clippers ran out of gas, ran out of miracles, and finally, ran out of time, as the Thunder eliminated them, 104-98, moving on to the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

It was a depressingly familiar scenario for the Clippers, who have never made it out of the second round of the playoffs, and are now 0-6 when trailing a best-of-7 playoff series 3-2.  It was perhaps most depressing for Chris Paul, who’s yet to reach a conference finals in his nine years in the league.

"I just feel awful for him," Rivers said. "He's the spirit of our team. Right now, his spirit is broken."

After the Clippers’ epic meltdown at the end of Game 5, with Paul taking full responsibility for a series of crucial mistakes in the final minute, the script called for a huge bounce-back game for the Clippers’ floor leader.  But though he tallied 25 points and 11 assists, it was another uneven fourth-quarter for Paul, who committed two turnovers and was whistled for an offensive foul that negated a DeAndre Jordan dunk and blunted a final Clippers charge. Even before that, Paul’s shot was off all night, and he was never able to get control of the offense.  As great as he was in the regular season, the whispers that Paul does not come up big in the biggest games will only get louder.

"We have a really good team, a great team,” said Paul afterwards. “It's crazy. You play all season long, and the last few games, we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it's crazy that it's over."

But before you lament another Clippers season ending the way they usually do; before you point out that the Clippers advanced no further than they did two seasons ago with Vinnie Del Negro as coach, consider what they had to play through these last few weeks.  This was the most successful team in Clippers history, winning 57 games and the Pacific Division.   Doc Rivers brought a stability and leadership unmatched by previous regimes.  But this year’s playoffs will forever be tarnished by the ongoing Donald Sterling scandal, and while the players and Rivers refused to use it as an excuse, the emotional strain of playing through threats of boycotts, pressure by family and friends, and subsequent ill-timed interviews by the clueless Sterlings, both Donald and wife Shelly, clearly caught up to them.

"I don't think that was why we didn't win,” said Rivers. “I don't think we should use that as an excuse. We're a team in process. I believe we were good enough to win it this year. Oklahoma City told us we were not."

Game 6 certainly didn’t start that way.  With celebs like Rhianna and Oscar De La Hoya in attendance; with longtime Lakers fan Jack Nicholson courtside next to James Brooks, the Clippers came out of the gate showing no ill effects from their Game 5 collapse.  Blake Griffin scored early and often against nemesis Serge Ibaka,

Durant and Westbrook missed 11 of their first 12 shots, and when Westbrook went to the bench with two early fouls, the crowd roared, sensing a golden opportunity.

As it turned out, the Clippers had saved their best for that first quarter, and had little left to give thereafter.  Three consecutive treys by Durant, some on missed coverages by Clipper defenders, turned the game for good in the second quarter.   By halftime, with the Thunder within 8 at 50-42, despite Durant and Westbrook combining to shoot 4-16, there was an inevitable sense of what was coming.  In the third quarter, Westbrook broke through with 7 points and 7 assists, feeding the suddenly-hot Durant, who hit all five of his shots and scored 14 points.

And with unsung bigs Steven Adams and Nick Collison covering ably for Serge Ibaka’s injury, and with the Clippers’ normally reliable bench unable to get anything going, their spirit was finally broken.   Tied going into the fourth, the Thunder pulled away like racehorses with a 10-run.  Even down 11 with three minutes left, the Clippers summoned up the energy for one last heroic effort, using a 7-0 run to get within four at 97-93, but they couldn’t get hit the key shot or get a stop when they needed it.   In the end, there was no shame in losing to a superior team, but it was the lost opportunities of Game 5 that will haunt the Clips.

It’s gonna hurt for a while,” said a dejected Chris Paul after.  “We should’ve been here up 3-2, with a chance to close it out.  “It’s a long summer, I tell you that much.”

The hint of how bad a summer it could be began even before the game, when Donald Sterling’s lawyer, Maxwell M. Blecher, announced that the owner would not pay his $2.5 million fine, and that Sterling was prepared to fight the NBA’s attempt to remove him.  The players’ wish that Sterling be removed before the start of next season looks highly unlikely, given that the protracted legal battle that’s ahead.

And if that’s the case – what then?  Does Doc Rivers walk away?  Will the current players be pressured not to wear the Clippers uniform while Sterling is still in power?  Will any free agent even consider joining them? 

"Like I've said before, I'm under contract," Rivers said. "I have no plans on going anywhere, as far as I know."

Unfortunately for the Clippers, neither does Sterling.   Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride ahead.

Clippers Save Their Season With Game 4 Comeback

It may be too early to call the Clippers a team of destiny, but their season is getting more magical by the minute.  What began as a Mother’s Day Massacre turned into a Mother’s Day Miracle, as the Clippers stormed back from a 16-point fourth quarter deficit and overtook the Thunder, 101-99, to even the series at 2-2.

It was one of the most deliriously improbable comebacks the Clippers have staged. It came with a “small ball” lineup the Clippers rarely use. It came with a defensive matchup almost never seen: the six-foot Chris Paul guarding the six-nine Kevin Durant. It came with Blake Griffin playing with five fouls, and playing, as coach Doc Rivers had urged him to, as if he had just one. It came with the Clippers hitting 13 of their final 16 shots, after they started the game missing 21 of their first 25. And it came with Clippers facing a must-win situation, or else fall behind 3-1, a hole that few NBA playoff teams have climbed out of. It was a day when the Clippers refused to die, even after they’d long been left for dead.

Heroes abounded, none more unlikely than Darren Collison, once a UCLA teammate of Russell Westbrook, who scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and, post-game, was awarded the game ball by Chris Paul.  "Darren Collison was amazing. You just got to love a guy like that who plays with so much heart and never gives up,” said Paul.

But it was Paul who did what all great leaders do: stepping up to do the dirty work when his team needed it most; in this case, switching on to Durant who, two minutes into the fourth quarter, had already torched the Clippers for 35 points. Though Durant wound up with 40, on 12-24 shooting, he took only 3 of his team’s final 15 shots, with Paul disrupting his dribble and with swarming double teams that forced Durant into three critical turnovers that the Clippers converted.

“I don’t think that’s brilliant coaching, it was desperate coaching,” said Rivers about the decision to put Paul on KD. “We were just looking for any combination.  Yesterday at the staff meeting, we had talked about how Durant was beating us off the dribble… but if you put a guard on him, you take that away; make him a post-up player.”

Asked about how the Clippers contained him, a subdued Durant shook his head.  “Nothing changed; they didn’t do nothing," he said. “He didn’t guard me one-on-one; they did a good job double-teaming me.”

“I just tried to make it as tough as possible for him,” said Paul.  “Tried to crowd him… it was tough trying to defend him and be aggressive offensively.”

But Paul was just that, scoring 23 points and adding 10 assists, including a gorgeous give-and-go to Griffin that tied the score at 94 late.

The comeback began in earnest with 9:01 remaining in the fourth and the Clippers down 82-66.  By that point, the Thunder had seemingly fended off every Clippers charge; the lead had hovered around the 10-12 mark for almost the entire second half.  The building was dead; fans could barely be summoned to wave the white towels that had been placed on every seat.  Griffin had five fouls, DeAndre Jordan, Matt Barnes, and JJ Redick had combined for a paltry 13 points, and Durant and Westbrook were having their way.

Finally, it seemed, the Clippers had tapped whatever was left in the tank.  They appeared listless when the game started, with OKC jumping out to a 29-7 lead and hitting 9 of their first 11 shots, many of them uncontested threes after Rivers had preached the need for defense pre-game.   By the end of the first quarter, the Clippers had made just 6 of 24 shots and trailed by 17.

Led by Paul, they climbed back into the game in the second, as OKC cooled, the Clippers remembered their defensive rotations, and Sixth Man of the Year Jamaal Crawford came off the bench for 11 badly needed points.  But after trailing by 11 at halftime, they couldn’t make up ground in the third quarter, and by the fourth, things looked bleak.

Said Collison later: The whole time I'm thinking, we can't be down 3-1… we just can't be down 3-1 going to Oklahoma."

With 8:44 to go, Griffin replaced Jordan and joined Paul, Collison, Crawford and Danny Granger to form the small lineup that would turn the game around.  "I'm not sure we ever used that lineup," Rivers said later. "But that group won the game for us tonight."

As always, it was a very physical game, with lots of chippy play, shoves, pushes, and players entangled, be it arms or legs. In the fourth quarter, the referees let the players play, to Griffin’s benefit; he could’ve easily picked up his sixth foul on a Westbrook drive with six minutes remaining and the Clippers down 8.   But there was no call; Paul converted a runner on the other end to bring the deficit down to 6, and the charge was on.   The Clippers outscored the Thunder 38-24 in the fourth, with Paul, Crawford and Collison combining for 27 of those points.

And while Durant and Westbrook remained an almost unstoppable duo, combining for 67 of the Thunder’s 99 points, in the end it was the Clippers’ collective trust, will and balance that prevailed.  In those frantic final minutes, it seemed like any one of the five Clippers players on the floor could take a shot; by contrast, any OKC player not named Durant or Westbrook all but disappeared.

"Even though we didn't play well throughout the game, we were able to get a win," Collison said. "That feels more impressive than anything we did."   After the disappointing loss in Game 3, when the Thunder stars stepped up to hit the big shots while the Clippers’ stars faltered, it was the Clippers who made all the big plays and right decisions in Game 4.

“We were almost on the mat and we got off of it. We didn't get pinned," said Rivers. "They're seething right now. They had an opportunity to go up 3-1 and now it's an even series."

Clippers Answer The Bell

In the end, it came down to basketball, thrilling, offensive basketball. The Clippers put aside Donald Sterling and distractions from the outside world, and, after scaring their fans with a lackluster first half, stormed back to outshoot, outmuscle, and outplay the Golden State Warriors.  Their pulsating 126-121 victory put an exclamation part on one of the greatest first-rounds I can ever remember in an NBA playoffs, and capped one of the most turbulent weeks that any professional sports team has had to endure.

On a night when Floyd Mayweather Jr. defended his welterweight title, the Clippers and Warriors staged their own version of a title fight, going toe-to-toe in a battle of shot-makers. Both teams refused to lose; it was almost a shame that one had to.  With both teams seeming to want it as much as the other, it came down to the Clippers’ superior talent, and an intangible that doesn’t show up in a box score: unity in the face of adversity.

“It shows our will, our fight,” said Chris Paul afterwards. “This was a slugfest, a dogfight.”  Paul, battling a sore left thumb and strained right hamstring, managed once again to show why he’s the best point guard in the league, leading the Clippers with 22 points and 14 assists, and hounding Stephen Curry into a 7-17 shooting night (though Curry did make all 16 of his free throws for a 33-point night).

At the very end, the defining moment of possibly the greatest win in Clippers history was Doc Rivers, who’d held his team together with leadership skills that went well beyond his coaching duties, finally letting his emotions loose; screaming; hugging players, and high-fiving a fan behind the Clippers bench.

"I just thought with all this stuff, this team just needed this win,'' Rivers said. "This was a hard week. It feels like two months. I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer, and be proud of something. And I was very proud of my players. Our guys faced a lot of adversity and found enough energy to win this game.”

These were not familiar conditions for either team. The Clippers had never played a Game 7 at home; the Warriors hadn’t won a Game 7 anywhere since 1975, and, incredibly, hadn’t won one on the road since they were known as the Philadelphia Warriors back in 1948.

Mark Jackson, who had said after Game 6 that the pressure to win was all on the Clippers, faced his own pressure: speculation that this might be his last game as Warriors coach.  But he shrugged off any notion that it could be a distraction. “I take every day like it could he my last day doing every thing, so it’s pressure every single day,” he said.

And Rivers was worried about Paul.  “He can't get away from anybody offensively," Doc said before the game. "When you watch him on film, he really struggles.... We're trying to use more picks just to get them off his body and that hasn't been very effective."

Rivers was confident his team had enough left in the emotional tank, but early on, it was the Warriors who came out blazing.  They shot 72% in the first quarter, many of them on unforgivably open looks in the corners.  Curry, who didn’t even take a shot for the first eight minutes, facilitated, and the benefactor was Draymond Green, who had a career night with 24 points, including five from beyond the arc. The Clippers looked lethargic and tentative; the Warriors controlled the pace and tempo. 

Early in the second, with the Warriors up 34-22, Curry sat, and the Clippers’ second unit led an important 7-0 run that kept the game from getting out of hand early.   But every time the Clippers cut into the lead, the Warriors responded.  Curry, who heated up in the second quarter, closed the half with an acrobatic four-point play that helped the Warriors to a 64-56 lead at the half.  

The sellout crowd, decked out in red Clippers “It’s Time” shirts, was apprehensive.

The entire building –which included a sizable number of Warriors fans - pretty much knew that the opening minutes of the third quarter could decide the series.   If the Warriors shot out to a 15, 20-point lead, the Clippers did not look capable of recovering.   

But as Griffin recounted later, “No one was down at halftime. We took a breath… realized they couldn’t keep shooting the way they were.” 

Added Paul: "Last night, guys were texting that this can't be over. It's not time for this to be over. We just felt in the timeouts and at halftime, we just knew it wasn't time for our season to be over…. Doc had said, if we trust each other, we’ll find a way to win.”

They trusted, and in the third quarter, the Warriors finally blinked.  They’d won Game 6 with their own decisive third quarter; in Game 7 the Clippers returned the favor.  They tightened their defensive rotations, started moving the ball crisply and efficiently, and took over in the paint.  Curry missed five of six shots; JJ Redick brought the Clippers back with 10 critical points, and with 5:53 left, his 20-foot gave the Clippers their first lead, 73-72, and send the crowd into a frenzy.    The Warriors shot just 36.8% for the quarter, and were outscored 31-20.  Heading into the fourth, with L.A. holding a three-point lead, the Warriors faced this daunting statistic: the Clippers were 34-0 at home when leading after three quarters.

The fourth quarter was a track meet; everything you could ask for in a winner-take-all playoff game.  An early 8-0 run gave the Warriors a 92-89 lead; a 9-2 Clippers spurt, keyed by a 3-pointer by Matt Barnes and a Griffin steal and layup, got the lead back for good.  But every time the Clippers stretched the lead to 4 or 6, the Warriors would slice it right back, with threes by Green and Andre Igoudala keeping them in it.

Three signature plays will make the Clippers highlight reel for years to come:

DeAndre Jordan’s block on Curry - after Curry had seemingly spun past him for a layup, before Jordan got his hand up and pinned the ball against the glass – which then lead to a fast break Lob City pass to Griffin for a monster slam that gave the Clippers a 112-109 lead.

Jordan’s clutch put-back of Paul’s miss as the shot clock was expiring, to extend the lead to 114-109, and then, with the lead down to three, Griffin’s circus shot behind his head, fouled as he fell to the floor, giving the Clippers a 116-111 lead that they never gave up.

For the Warriors, who took their last lead of the season with 2:21 to play, it was a tough end to a series in which four of the seven games were decided by fewer than five points. "We fought so hard this whole series, this whole season,'' Curry said. "It stings. It's disappointing for sure.''

The Clippers, meanwhile, will try to get out of the second round for the first time in their history.  Mentally, Doc Rivers has been preparing them for this moment from the time he took over as coach.

Back in September, before the Clippers’ very first practice of training camp, Rivers handed each of his players a piece of paper with the map of Downtown L.A. on it.  The players were told to pick their championship parade route, even though they had never won a championship or had a parade.

The Clippers have never won a championship before and therefore have never had a parade, so they could choose their own route.

"I did that right away -- you have to," Rivers said. "I just think you have to have a destination. It just can't be a journey…  every year our team has to have a destination."

The Clippers’ journey continues Monday in Oklahoma City, Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.  The destination, hopefully: Figueroa Street in June.

Clippers Rise To The Moment In Game 5

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Lakers Continue To Self-Destruct

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A Los Angeles Rivalry At Last

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