Soon after, the Clippers rolled out slogans meant to convey their grit and differentiate themselves from the Lakers, their glitzy crosstown rivals: “Driven over given,” “We over me,” “Squad over self,” and “Streetlights over spotlights.”
But the promised substance at the heart of the Clippers’ messaging campaign was nowhere to be found in the playoff moments that mattered. Instead, the slogan that best fit their disastrous collapse in the NBA bubble was one no team ever wants: “All bark, no bite.”
Technically, the Clippers’ disastrous collapse was a series of disastrous collapses. The Denver Nuggets rallied from a 12-point deficit Tuesday to beat Los Angeles going away, 104-89, in Game 7 of their second-round series, after rallying from a 16-point deficit to win Game 5 and a 19-point deficit to win Game 6. With a 3-1 lead and three chances to advance to the conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s 50-year history, the Clippers went 0 for 3 and were outscored by a combined 94-59 in the fourth quarters of their final three losses.
“That hurts. That hurts. It hurts. It hurts,” George said. “But you move on. Year one together. First run together.”
As Denver’s Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic hit big shots and dished crisp assists, Los Angeles’s superstars tossed up bricks and froze in the moment. Leonard finished with 14 points on 22 shots and was a minus-21; George tallied 10 points on 16 shots and was a minus-20. Combined, they committed seven turnovers and shot one free throw in 82 minutes. When the Nuggets went on runs, the Clippers’ superstars didn’t push back, they didn’t get stops and they didn’t force the issue by going to the basket.
This was a swift comeuppance for a Clippers team that chirped more than any other in the bubble, both from the bench during games and in front of the microphones afterward. Shortly before the playoffs, George and Patrick Beverley mocked Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard for missing a clutch free throw, with George telling Lillard that he was “getting sent home this year” and Beverley adding, “Cancun on three.”
In the first round, Montrezl Harrell was caught on camera calling Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic a “b---- a-- White boy.” (Harrell later apologized.) Marcus Morris also engaged in chest-to-chest talks with Doncic after delivering multiple hard fouls, leading Doncic to say after the series that he “[doesn’t] want to deal with that kind of player.”
Then, after a Game 3 win in the second round, Beverley accused Jokic of selling calls and sideswiped Doncic in the process. “He presents the same thing [Luka] Doncic presents: a lot of flailing,” Beverley said. He puts a lot of pressure on the referees to make the right calls.”
All that talk, all that confidence, all that gamesmanship and all those players and draft picks that landed George from the Oklahoma City Thunder yielded only the biggest disappointment in franchise history. Rather than open the Western Conference finals against the Lakers on Friday after more than a year of anticipation, the Clippers were left to sort through the wreckage. (It also got the Clippers roundly mocked on social media, led by their old target, Lillard.)
“We didn’t meet [expectations],” said Rivers, who also oversaw the Clippers’ 3-1 playoff collapse to the Houston Rockets in 2015. “That’s the bottom line. I’m the coach, and I’ll take any blame.”
Rivers admitted that he never felt confident when the Clippers held big second-half leads, pointing to his team’s conditioning issues and lack of shared experience. Some of that was out of his control: The Clippers had health issues all season, veteran guard Lou Williams and Harrell both departed the bubble to attend funerals, and Beverley suffered a calf injury that sidelined him for stretches of the playoffs.
Yet the Clippers spent all year diligently limiting the wear and tear on Leonard and George, saving them for the playoffs and the biggest moments. Rivers even said in April that the Clippers were striving to “win the wait” by keeping their players in shape and engaged during the NBA’s four-month hiatus because of the novel coronavirus. More than a year of load management still ended with heavy legs.
“We had guys that just couldn’t play minutes,” Rivers said. “That’s hard.”
The Clippers team that showed up in the bubble enjoyed some memorable heights, including a Game 5 blowout win over the Mavericks in which it scored a postseason franchise-record 154 points and a resounding 120-97 victory over the Nuggets in Game 1. But the Clippers lacked consistency and camaraderie, pointing fingers on the court after mistakes and looking lost when confronted with adversity.
“We did have championship expectations,” Williams said. “We had the talent to do it. I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it, and it showed.”
That started with their superstars, whose decision to team up last summer installed the Clippers as the early title favorites. While the Lakers’ new duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis quickly meshed on and off the court, Leonard and George never quite got there. The end of the series against the Nuggets devolved into “my turn, your turn” play, and the Clippers’ signature strength — perimeter defense — was shredded.
In their season-ending loss, Leonard and George were badly outplayed by Murray, who scored a game-high 40 points, and Jokic, who posted 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists. Despite being significantly younger, Denver’s duo were more comfortable, more assertive, more focused and more effective. The late-game heroics that defined Leonard’s Finals MVP run with the title-winning Toronto Raptors last year were nowhere to be found, and George’s list of playoff hiccups added another chapter.
“There’s always pressure to live up to title expectations,” George said. “As a player you want that. It’s the first time I’ve been in that situation where we’re expected to win. … We didn’t live up to that expectation. But I think internally, we’ve always felt this is not a ‘championship or bust’ year for us. We can only get better the longer we stay together and the more we’re around each other. The more chemistry for this group, the better. I think that’s really the tale of the tape for this season. We didn’t have enough time together.”
Suddenly, though, the Clippers must be concerned with how much more time they have together. Leonard, George and Williams are all set to become free agents in 2021, while Harrell and Morris are free agents this offseason. The Clippers were built for today with little regard for tomorrow, and today just ended in a nightmare that prompted another round of familiar taunts.
“The Lakers will always own Los Angeles,” Magic Johnson wrote on Twitter, adding exclamation points and a smiley face for emphasis. “It will never change.”
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