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April 2016

Heart and Hustle

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It is hard to decide whether the circumstances surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers’ latest postseason disappointment makes their fate easier to swallow than their last surprising playoff exit.

Last season, a franchise that had barely even sniffed second round in its existence was a quarter away from a conference finals berth that would have greatly altered the perception of the franchise and its core before choking it away. This year, a seemingly cursed franchise suffered two cataclysmic injuries just when promise seemed to be on the horizon.

What is more painful: Having firm control of your situation and failing to meet expectations or never even getting that opportunity?

At the end the day, the details won’t matter for the Clippers. They don’t change the bottom line, which is that this was another lost season for a franchise in desperate need of a breakthrough, a lost season for a core that might not have another season together and a lost season for a point guard whose prime is closer to its end than its beginning.

But the details do matter, at least in one respect.

The poignant difference between the final games of the Clippers’ season during the past two years was their disposition. This time around, the Clippers did not go down without a fight. They were not befuddled by unexpected circumstances like they were when the Rockets made their furious comeback last year in Game 6. Even without their two best players and with J.J. Redick looking like a shell of himself, the Clippers scrapped, clawed and fought back against the Blazers, and they were on level terms with Portland for seven of the final eight quarters of this series.

Doc Rivers and his players said all the right things about trying to move on from the injuries to Paul and Griffin. They talked about coming to terms with the situation and trying to fight through it. It wasn’t an unfamiliar rhetoric; what was surprising was that the Clippers actually lived up to their words. It would have been natural and completely forgivable for the Clippers to fold once their postseason dreams turned into heartbreaking nightmares. Instead, they tried to persevere and did not concede an inch to the Blazers.

The two players who most embodied the Clippers’ undying pride in the final two games were DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers.

Jordan played a fantastic series altogether. Los Angeles came into the series with a staunch dedication to its gameplan for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which required its bigs to extend high to trap Portland’s star guards before scurrying back to the paint in time to protect the basket. For a player who has become synonymous with the prevalent “ice” coverage, which allows him to sag back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, Jordan showcased an ability to pressure the ball well beyond the 3-point line while still acting as an effective rim deterrent. Things did not get easier for Portland once Paul and Griffin went down, which is a testament to how good Jordan was on the defensive end in this series.

Then there was Rivers, who took an elbow to his left eye during the first quarter of Game 6 and was a bloody mess as the trainers ushered him to the locker room. Rivers only missed about a quarter of the game before returning with 11 stitches under and above his eye. There were times when you could see blood streaming down his face from the fresh wound, but Rivers didn’t care. He managed to pour in 21 points to go along with eight assists and six rebounds with one eye practically shut, a la Steve Nash in the 2010 semifinals against the Spurs.

When the final buzzer sounded, Rivers was emotional. You could tell he mustered up everything he could to get back in the game and play through his impairment for his teammates, and he literally left his blood, sweat and tears on the court.

Given that his coach is also his father and that his tenure in New Orleans didn’t go particularly well, Rivers has been one of the league’s most maligned players during the past two seasons. Many believe he wouldn’t have a spot in the league if it weren’t for his dad’s role as coach and general manager, but this game helped confirm that isn’t the case. This was the fourth time he has scored 15 or more points in a postseason game for the Clippers, and his defense on Lillard was phenomenal. Rivers has a player option for next season, but don’t be surprised if he opts out in search of a better deal.

What happens next for the Clippers will be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Or maybe it won’t. Much like this season, when the Clippers were an afterthought hidden in the footnotes of historical seasons for the Warriors and Spurs, Kevin Durant’s free agency (and who knows, maybe LeBron’s, too) might push any shakeup in Los Angeles to the backburner.

I hope this isn’t the end for the Clippers as we know them, though. Doc Rivers talked before the season about change being necessary if a core becomes stale, but the way this season ended was obviously not a product of that. Los Angeles certainly needs to upgrade to stay on course with the Warriors, and Doc’s extremely spotty record as a GM leaves little room for hope on that front, but after all this team has been through, it doesn’t deserve for its present era to be ended by untimely injuries.

But if this was the last time we see this iteration of the Clippers, even if Paul and Griffin were absent, at least they went out fighting like a team that believed it could overcome its certain demise. For the Clippers franchise, that is a victory in and of itself.

Back In The Spotlight

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For the first time in three seasons, Chris Paul overshadowed Stephen Curry. Ever since Curry broke out on the national stage in 2013, Paul has become a bit of an afterthought, replaced as the league’s preeminent point guard while the Warriors quickly supplanted the Clippers as the most exhilarating team in California.

Monday night, however, Paul stole the spotlight back. And it could not have been for a worse reason.

Just more than 24 hours after Curry slipped on a wet spot near midcourt at the Toyota Center and suffered a mild MCL sprain, Paul’s innocuous reach on Gerald Henderson produced even more disastrous results, for he fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand. While Curry’s initial two-week timetable leaves room for optimism, Paul is expected to be out for the remainder of the postseason, giving the Clippers little reason to hope.

And, as the Clippers luck would have it, Paul isn’t only causality they will have to deal with in this series. In Game 4, Blake Griffin aggravated the quad injury that kept him out for a large part of the season, and the team has announced he is done for the year. The cherry on top is J.J. Redick, whose bruised heel is limiting his effectiveness on the heels of the best season of his career. By the end of Game 4, the lineup the Clippers had on the floor looked like one Doc Rivers deployed in the dying days of the season when the seeds were set, and that is going to be how the Clippers look to finish this series.

This was a cruel turn for one of America’s sincerely cursed sports franchises. When the Clippers took the floor in Portland on Monday night, their oft-criticized core had never been in a better position to make the conference finals. The most optimistic timetable for Curry had him returning for Game 4 in the second round at the earliest, and Los Angeles was in a good position to take a 3-1 lead against the Blazers, a team it had dominated for two of the first three games of the series.

By the start of the fourth quarter, that narrative had been completely reversed. Suddenly, the Warriors seemed to escape the possibility of facing the Clippers, a team that consistently pushes them (in large part thanks to Paul’s fight), without Curry and instead a more favorable matchup against the Blazers had become more likely.

This was also an unbelievably traumatic twist for Paul. Paul is one of this generation’s most brilliant and accomplished players, but circumstances and happenings out of his control have robbed him of a legitimate title chance seemingly every season. He had had a fantastic regular season, perhaps his best since his first with the Clippers, navigating choppy waters without Griffin for most of the season and carrying the team to another 50-win season, no small feat for Clipper land. Most importantly, Paul was healthy for most of the year and might have played all 82 for the second straight season were it not for precautionary DNPs and the Clippers resting guys down the stretch. Another of Paul’s prime seasons going to waste because such an unlucky injury in the postseason feels so unjust.

Now that the Blazers have found an offensive rhythm and with the Clippers down their two best players, the pendulum has swung violently in Portland’s favor for the remainder of this series, and Los Angeles shutting down Griffin could easily be interpreted as the white flag on this season. So within two days we went from having two blockbuster, potentially all-time great, second round matchups – Oklahoma City vs San Antonio and Los Angeles vs Golden State – to one great series and another tarnished by injuries.

The pressure has certainly shifted to the Thunder and Spurs, two teams that couldn’t have envisioned this good a shot at the Finals just two days ago. Assuming the Blazers are able to defeat the Clippers, which they should be favored to do at this point, they will face the Warriors without the league MVP, but Golden State will be happier to see the Blazers than the healthy Clippers, for the Warriors have a much better chance to stall against Portland, making Curry’s return while the series is still being decided a possibility. Either way, if Portland can beat the wounded Warriors or if Golden State scraps by the Blazers with Curry barely rounding into form, the Thunder or Spurs will smell blood in the water in the conference finals.

Meanwhile, Paul and the Clippers will likely be at home watching the conference finals yet again, wondering what might have been. In back-to-back seasons the Clippers were a fourth quarter away from their first conference finals birth – first against the Thunder in 2014, then the Rockets last season – only to choke away those opportunities. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as close this year, but in many ways a second round victory against the (healthy) defending champions would have been a validation of this Clippers’ core.

But now, because of the unforgiving and untimely nature of injuries, the Clippers won’t have that chance. And who knows how much time Paul has left in the spotlight.

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