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The Clippers Never Recovered From Their 2015 Playoffs Collapse

Every time the Clippers freeze up at the end of a game, every time rumors leak about internal strife, the specter of their 2015 series against the Rockets raises its head. What can they do to reverse the curse?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Even in the era of blowing 3–1 series leads, the Clippers’ 2015 playoffs collapse against the Rockets, and the slow-roasted agony of Game 6 in particular, stands apart. It was a pioneering moment in modern NBA choking, the most glaring collapse since the Suns roared back from 3–1 against the solo-Kobe Lakers in 2006. It may not have been as electrifying as the Warriors peeling off three straight against the Thunder in last season’s Western Conference finals, or as high stakes and thrilling as “Loser Cry Baby James” and the Cavaliers muscling their way to the title, but the Rockets’ comeback over the Clippers stands as a brutal and lasting indictment of a coach and collection of players.

I experienced the game as if it were a portal to another dimension. I guess it was. It was May 2015: a weird time. I had been writing for Grantland (RIP) for just over a year. That night, I had plans to meet some colleagues in Manhattan to commiserate over the recent departure of our patronus, Bill Simmons. Uncertainty reigned. But I had a job to do. I didn’t want to leave the nurturing womb of my living room until I was sure the game was a done deal. I am nothing if not professional.

Mid-third quarter, the Clippers were up 19, and the Rockets were going through the motions like a court-mandated marriage counseling session. Forks were visibly protruding from the Rockets’ backs. I jumped on the train for the 20-to-30-minute commute to the city. When the train rolled across the Manhattan Bridge, I checked the score — Clippers by 12. Interesting, but no reason for concern. By the time I arrived at the bar, the Rockets had won. WHAT? Anyway, that’s the story of why I’m not on that particular Grantland shootaround post. Good thing I DVR’d the game. I told you: pro.

These memories came flooding back last week, as I watched the Clippers lurch through a three-game losing streak before catching a DNP-CD jackpot with the Cavs (no LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Love, much to the NBA and its broadcasting partners’ chagrin) for a lotion-soft win for the jittery Staples crowd. First, there was a chippy loss in a possible first-round-matchup preview in Utah, after which Chris Paul observed that Rudy Gobert “can play, but he just talks a lot.” Then there was a hardscrabble defeat to the Bucks at home, which ended with Blake Griffin’s baby hook getting smothered by three Bucks as Mo Speights lingered wide open on the baseline. They capped it off with the troubling denouement in Denver (without Blake or DeAndre Jordan and on the second night of a back-to-back), a 129–114 old-fashioned, high-altitude fraternity ass-paddling that featured Nikola Jokic putting up a 17–14–11 triple-double.

After the game, J.J. Redick said, “I don’t know what to expect from this team anymore. It’s just — we’re in a bad place right now.” When asked what he saw in the future for the Clippers: “I expect that we’re going to play horrible defense. I expect that. That seems pretty consistent with where we’re at right now and other than that I have no other predictions.”

Hovering over this run of losses, and over the franchise as a whole, is the Game 6 debacle — it’s part of the franchise DNA now. Any time a Clipper player makes a mistake, bricks a shot, or freelances the offense, any time the defense goes slack with disinterest or honest exhaustion, and the score inevitably tightens, it’s as if Game 6’s gravity is reasserting itself.

The playoffs are where a team’s true character is revealed. And the Clippers outed themselves as existentially shook. The Thunder got swallowed up by an objectively superior Warriors team. The Warriors lost to a Cleveland squad that sports the greatest player on Earth, after suffering a series-swinging suspension to Draymond Green. The Clippers? There’s no excuse. There’s nowhere to hide.

On paper, they are exactly where they’re supposed to be. They are as good as any team without the Lineup of Death or LeBron can be. The trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan is as good as any core group outside of Oakland. J.J. Redick is exactly the kind of off-the-ball sniper needed to complement them. Doc Rivers is one of six active coaches to have steered a team to an NBA title. Despite ongoing struggles to find a small forward, the Clippers can moonwalk to 50-plus wins, as they have since 2013. And, here and there, L.A.’s other team has shown flashes of something more. It seems like a million years ago, but the Clippers were putting up lockdown defensive numbers in the early part of this campaign.

They say you can worry only about things you can control. But the Clippers can’t control luck. Every season, luck rears its mangy goat head to devour many a team’s best-laid plans. Last year’s NBA Finals swung, in part, on Steph Curry slipping on a slick of sweat. In 2013, if LeBron’s desperation 3-pointer caroms to a Spurs player instead of Chris Bosh, allowing Ray Allen to hit one of the biggest big-ball-dance shots in NBA history, then San Antonio has an extra chip.

If Kevin Garnett, the hub of the Celtics’ historically suffocating defense, doesn’t get hurt in February 2009 … if a ring-chasing Karl Malone doesn’t pick up an injury in the 2004 Finals … if the referees don’t take LSD before Game 6 of Kings-Lakers in 2002 … if the 1999 lockout doesn’t happen … if Hakeem Olajuwon is a fraction of a step late on John Starks in 1994.

If Larry Bird doesn’t fuck up his paw in a clandestine bar fight in May 85. No one likes to talk about it, especially the winners, but luck is always a deciding factor.

The rare kind of collapse experienced by the Clippers in 2015 hits like a bomb and leaves an invisible crater in a franchise’s psyche. I’m talking about the kind of defeat that cracks a team’s self-belief and changes the way fans look at the players and the way the players look at each other. The type of failure so embarrassing that it demands to be named a debacle, yet one that occurs so unexpectedly, like Dorothy’s house dropping out of the clear blue sky, that it also feels like fate.

The Clippers were as close as you could be to winning a series and still lose. The way the defeat went down called the very fiber of the team into question. Up a dozen, seven minutes to go, James Harden on the bench, and L.A. chose to run clock instead of going for the kill. A troubling core of timidity seemed to be revealed. Shots stopped falling. The offense got broken as Paul and Blake, each in their turn, attempted to take over the game. Josh Smith going full viking funeral.

So how do you come back?

Slay the Dragon

The Clippers have three dragons: two mini-bosses — the Rockets and making the conference finals — and a fire-breathing final boss — the Golden State Warriors. As things stand, the Clips, a game back of the Jazz in the loss column and slotted into the 5-seed, would meet the Warriors in the second round. Beating them and advancing, for the first time in franchise history, to the conference finals would shake the league and go a long way toward expunging a lifetime of demons.

Of course, the Clippers have lost 10 straight games to Golden State, dating back to 2015. And, yes, some of the saddest reaction GIFs in recent NBA history are of Chris Paul soaking up yet another defeat at the hands of Steph and Klay.

Worse than the losing, the Clips play like they know they can’t beat the Warriors. Which, yeah, barring injuries and acts of Draymond (all things that ACTUALLY HAPPEN BTW), they can’t. BUT! So what? Breaking a rival team’s hegemony has always been part of the road to success in the NBA. Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer joined the eventual Bad Boy Pistons in 1981 and ’82, respectively. Detroit didn’t make the conference finals until 1987, when it was eliminated by the Celtics for the second time in three seasons. Two years later, the Pistons were NBA champions. In turn, they sent the Jordan Bulls packing in 1988, 1989, and 1990, before Chicago finally fought its way, literally, to the Finals and its first title.

It’s a different league now. Shorter deals, a punitive salary cap, and true free agency make it harder to keep talented young cores together. The Thunder got eight years out of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and seven out of Serge Ibaka. The Warriors owe a large part of their current success to the salary-depressing effects of Curry’s early-career ankle problems.

Still, the Spurs created several pseudo-dynasties by successfully discovering and developing role players that complement their system. When a team’s front office does its job, and its players do theirs, superstars feel comfortable taking pay cuts. Anyone think the Clippers’ free agents are gonna take a pay cut?

Blow It Up

Sometimes, the only way to expunge the stain of a soul-destroying loss is to shake up the roster. The most devastating defeat of my lifetime was the infamous 1993 Game 5 between the Knicks and the MJ Bulls, when Charles Smith’s last-second, velvet-ass layups were thrown back again and again and again and again.

I’ve spent the rest of my life as a sports fan trying to avoid ever feeling that kind of pain again. Knicks fans never looked at Smith the same; the Garden sprinkled boos when he entered games that turned to torrents each time he made a mistake or missed a shot. Smith played out the rest of his Knicks career like he was traumatized. Two and a half years later, he was shipped out for pieces. It was the best thing for everyone involved.

The Clips are nearing a fork in the road. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul both have early-termination options allowing them to be unrestricted free agents this summer. Choosing which direction to go in is complicated. Griffin has evolved into an athletic, playmaking dynamo with a respectable shooting touch. Chris Paul is still among the league’s elite point guards in an era when the position is more important than it’s ever been. As Kevin O’Connor demonstrated, the Clippers, in the Doc Rivers era, are a better team by net rating, true shooting, and assist rate with Paul on the floor and Blake off, compared with Blake on and CP3 off. Both guys have battled injuries of late, but Paul, 31, is three years older than Griffin.

Bye, Doc

With the exception of Gregg Popovich (and Pat Riley in 2006, though under vastly different circumstances) head-coach-general-manager hybrids do not lead their teams to championships. Each job is tremendously difficult in its own right. From personal experience, I can tell you that multitasking can lead a person to cut corners, which is why I find Doc’s penchant for signing his old players and dudes who had great games against him to be the most relatable thing about him.

The strategy has been hit or miss. Austin Rivers, against all odds of sports and nepotism, has turned himself into a passable replacement-level guard. Mo Speights and indispensable wing defender Luc Mbah a Moute (the Clippers have a 102.3 defensive rating with him on the court, 109 with him off) were important signings at great prices. But then there’s the cavalcade of old cronies — Nate Robinson, Danny Granger, Hedo “Pizza Rat” Turkoglu, Big Baby Davis — who didn’t pan out, and a total lack of impactful draftees. One might argue that the Clips clipped so hard in 2015 because the starters were worn down from having to play essentially every important minute with a bench rotation of Jamal Crawford (OK), Rivers (uh-oh), and Davis (yikes) as their only consistent backups.

I hope the Clippers stick it out. Assembling a core made up of three of arguably the best 20 players in the league is 99 percent of winning in the NBA. But if they can’t escape the shadow of Game 6 this spring, it feels like anything is on the table, starting with Doc.