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The Star Clippers Faded When It Mattered Most

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Ivica Zubac, Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley, and Marcus Morris Sr. of the Los Angeles Clippers walk up the court in an NBA game.
(Left to right) Ivica Zubac, Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley, and Marcus Morris Sr. | Image via Getty/Noah Graham

On July 24, 2019, a press conference was held to introduce newcomers Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers. Owner Steve Ballmer, in typical Ballmer fashion, exclaimed "I have these notes, but I'm just fired up to be here today!" Perhaps this would be the year in which the Clippers finally match the Lakers in both popularity and success. This would be the year that Staples Center would hoist their team's first championship banner in history. This had to be the year, as the front office made the decision to trade away young star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and five first-round picks to acquire George from the Thunder. Instead, the Clippers found themselves a ticket back to California after their Game 7 loss to the Nuggets. The mega-talented roster, the experienced head coach, the sheer excitement of a budding superteam...what went wrong?

For one, they were unable to close out games against the Nuggets. In Game 5, Denver trailed by 16 points with 9:42 left in the fourth quarter; they ended up winning by 6. Michael Porter Jr. made a deep 3-pointer with a minute left in the game to seal away LA’s chance of winning. Once again, in game 6, LA squandered a 19-point lead in the third quarter, mostly because of Leonard and George’s poor combined shooting percentage of 28.6% in the second half. And a third time for good measure, they gave up a 12-point lead in Game 7. 

This series-long collapse is not the first for head coach Doc Rivers. In 2003, the Rivers-led Orlando Magic threw away a 3-1 lead to Tracy McGrady and the Detroit Pistons. In Games 5, 6, and 7, the Magic simply failed to put up a fight against McGrady’s MVP-level play. Flash forward to 2015, and Rivers is coaching the Clippers after nine years with the Celtics. These “Lob City” Clippers boasted two players with some of the strongest chemistry at the time in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They failed to capitalize on their 3-1 lead against the Houston Rockets, and Rivers was left as the first head coach to blow that opportunity multiple times.

This is not a knock against Rivers’s coaching credentials; it is simply fascinating that his teams have lost 3-1 leads three times. He also holds the record for Game 7 losses with eight. Rivers’ minute management also proved questionable down the stretch. Following Game 7, Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated reported that certain Clippers could not play for stretches longer than three minutes during Game 7 and asked out for a rest.

Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers draws up plays for his team in an NBA game.
Doc Rivers | Image via Getty

Besides Doc’s playoff struggles, the Clippers’ supporting cast seriously disappointed. Perennial sixth man of the year Lou Williams shot a paltry 35.7% from the field and just 16.4% from 3-point range. Montrezl Harrell, a typical spark plug off the bench, averaged less than 12 points in the seven game series. Starting center Ivica Zubac did as much as he could, acting as the only effective screener on the entire roster. He only played 14 minutes in Game 7, allowing Nikola Jokić feast on smaller defenders like Harrell.

What was most vital to the Clippers’ quest for a championship was the performance of their new acquisitions, Leonard and George. Both came to Los Angeles with MVP-caliber performances in the 2018-19 season. Kawhi had just won a championship with the Raptors, and Paul was a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league in steals per game. However, George needed to replicate, if not exceed, the previous season’s performance to justify what the Clippers sent to Oklahoma City. 

He was not able to meet those expectations, to put it lightly. PG’s scoring average sank from 28.0 to 21.5, and he missed time with a hamstring issue. Unfortunately, his level of play tanked even further once the playoffs rolled around. George shot under 40% from the field and just 33% from behind the arc, including a 4-for-16 Game 7. The self-proclaimed “Playoff P” was evidently missing from this year’s postseason. 

Leonard in the regular season averaged a career high 27.1 points and 4.9 assists per game. During the Clippers’ first round matchup against the Mavericks, the “Klaw” was fantastic, averaging almost 33 points per game and shooting 54% from the field. But when they needed him the most, he completely vanished as well. In Games 5, 6, and 7, Leonard averaged 11.7 points, shooting an abysmal 28.6% from the field.

No matter how talented Los Angeles appeared on paper, they simply failed to perform. Apparently, the Clippers did not have as strong a bond as other playoff teams. Rivers, Leonard, George, and Lou Williams cited chemistry as an issue following their Game 7 loss. Los Angeles is still a championship contender going forward, but they can’t afford to be anything less. They don’t have a first round draft pick until 2027, so their focus must be locked on the present. If Patrick Beverley and Paul George want to taunt Damian Lillard on Instagram and talk about championship parades, they need to back it up. Right now, the Clippers aren’t ready to do so.


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