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“There’s No Cushion”

Damaged and disappointed — for the Clippers in the postseason, it’s a familiar state of being. Minus an injured Blake Griffin, all signs point to another early playoff exit, and an uncertain future.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

A harpist strummed away happily in the ornate hotel lobby while a gathering of people sat at nearby tables, grinning, listening, sipping afternoon tea. Down a series of hallways in a private area called Earl’s Lounge, the media assembled in a dimly lit room outfitted with dark, rich wood and marble. Random pictures of famous people in identical gold frames decorated the walls; George W. Bush on one, Bruce Willis on another. It was the kind of setting that invited jokes about smoking jackets and snifters of brandy. The backdrop was so self-serious it came off as silly, especially when juxtaposed with the otherwise somber affair at hand.

It was a weird scene — though, in fairness, the location made sense from a practical standpoint. The Clippers were staying there, after all. The team gathered reporters at the opulent Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Saturday after its Game 3 win against the Jazz on Friday night to address what has become a brutal tradition: the annual announcement that a principal player was out for the postseason. This time it was Blake Griffin with a smashed toe (medical term).

When Doc Rivers materialized through a side door, he said all the things you’d expect about focusing on the games ahead and getting contributions from “the next man up.” The usual bromides provided only so much cover, but Rivers wasn’t trying to hide behind them anyway. He was plainly and understandably upset. He called it “awful” more than once and said “you can’t imagine how heartbroken” Griffin is.

Rivers said he went back and looked for the injury on Friday’s game tape, but it was hard to find. “It was one of those no-one-around injuries,” he said. “Those are always the worst. It means something in your body gave out.”

Griffin later told his coach he thought he actually hurt himself on the play before the awkward layup landing. In any event, Rivers didn’t know it had happened. Not right away. He had just called a timeout late in the second quarter of Game 3 when he realized something was off. Someone was missing from the huddle.

“I was looking for Blake and I didn’t know Blake had left the floor,” Rivers said. “That’s when they told me he was going back to possibly get an X-ray. I didn’t know on what.”

At first, it seemed like Griffin might be able to walk it off. He hobbled around for a short while, favoring his foot, before coming out of the game. Then he slammed a chair with his hand in frustration as he limped to the locker room.

The 28-year-old will see a foot and ankle specialist about the plantar plate in his right big toe this week in Los Angeles. Rivers said surgery was “for sure” a possibility. If it had happened to any other team, there would have been an element of powerful disbelief to it. Not him. Not them. Not now. But it didn’t happen to any other team. It happened to the Clippers. Surreal doesn’t apply to them anymore. They are all too familiar with the pain of improbable events.

Chris Paul came into Earl’s Lounge shortly after Rivers. He had spent much of the morning consoling Griffin. Paul said he wasn’t prepared to talk to the media that afternoon — no one told him until right before he was wrangled and placed in front of us — and he paused for a moment when someone asked how Griffin was doing.

“Not great,” Paul responded. “Not great.”

He didn’t appear to be much better. Like Rivers, Paul seemed deflated. He ticked off all the work Griffin put in, all the unseen effort and training, and just shook his head. “Somebody like that, you just hate for dumb stuff to happen,” Paul said.

Griffin, who missed 21 games this season, had arthroscopic knee surgery in December. The season before, he appeared in just 35 regular-season games, partly because of a broken hand suffered in a bizarre off-court fight with a team employee at a Toronto dinner outing gone sideways. He also suffered a partially torn quad, which he re-injured in the 2016 playoffs against Portland. The last time Griffin played more than 67 games was back in the 2013–14 campaign.

This marks the third consecutive postseason that injuries have crippled the Clippers. In addition to Griffin going down in the first round against the Trail Blazers last season, the Clippers also lost Paul when he broke his hand in Game 4. Portland upended Los Angeles and won the series in six games. The year before that, Paul missed two second-round games with a hamstring injury, and the Rockets dispatched the Clippers in seven. And now here the Clippers are again — damaged and disappointed. Just when you think they might navigate their way through a portion of the playoffs without incident, they crash at the treacherous intersection of bad luck and postseason aspirations.

Rivers has revealed more than once that he believes in the basketball gods, but he rejected the idea that the Clippers are cursed. He said the latest Griffin injury was unfortunate, but he needed to figure out how to move the Clippers forward despite it. But what might he say to his players? How might he cushion what must be a devastating psychological blow?

“There’s no cushion,” Rivers replied.

Beyond having to mentally process another improbable injury at yet another inopportune time, losing Griffin presented immediate on-court problems for the Clippers. Griffin was invaluable to their efforts of attacking the rim. Including his 18-minute Game 3 appearance, he was scoring 20.3 points per game in the playoffs, 12.7 of which came in the paint, per NBA.com. There’s just no way for the Clippers reserves to replicate his size and athleticism rolling to the rim — not to mention that Griffin was the team’s second-best passer with a healthy 23.5 assist percentage in the regular season. He was also 12th in the league among forwards in screen assists.

“One of the biggest adjustments is probably we won’t be able to play through the post so much,” Paul said before Game 4. “Blake is such a dynamic player. We go to him in the post. We cut and move off of him. In the ball screens a lot of times he’s our other assist guy, a guy we play off of and stuff like that.”

DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert (AP Images)
DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert (AP Images)

Rivers said he’d have to use his imagination in Game 4 and somehow combine the guys at the end of his roster into one useful piece, like some sort of spare-parts basketball Voltron. Making matters worse for Rivers, or at least more complicated, Rudy Gobert returned to the Jazz lineup on Sunday evening. That was more bad news for the Clippers, though Utah received some of its own. Gordon Hayward got food poisoning and spent much of Sunday getting IVs at his house. He played just over nine minutes, took three shots and scored three points, and sat out the second half. Quin Snyder said Hayward was “basically on his back” right up until tipoff.

Somehow, that didn’t matter. Joe Johnson did his Iso Joe thing again, scoring a game-high 28 points, and Gobert had 15 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks in 24 minutes. The Jazz won 105–98 and tied the series 2–2. It was a rough couple of days for the Clippers.

“I thought we were pretty creative, we had some good lineups out on the floor, but I didn’t think we did much with it,” Rivers said about his rotations. “We got really stagnant down the stretch, and that’s on me.”

Trying to squeeze more out of the backups was always going to be a lot to ask. By Rivers’s own admission, the Clippers bench was already super thin with Austin Rivers out. The bench had 37 points in Game 4, their best output of the series, but Jamal Crawford produced 25 of them. Raymond Felton added 11 more. Wesley Johnson, who played four minutes, was the only other reserve to score. Quick math already told you he had one point.

When Griffin went down, Mo Speights slid into the starting lineup and Rivers’s reserves went from bad to worse. Paul Pierce, who hadn’t played more than 10 minutes in a single game in almost a month, played nearly 21 minutes in Game 3. Chris Paul said Pierce “stepped up big” in that win, but Pierce took just one shot and didn’t score. His biggest contribution that evening was when he handed his sweat-soaked headband to a Jazz fan late in the fourth quarter. In Game 4, Pierce played 12 minutes, took just one shot again and didn’t score. Even with a walking boot, Blake Griffin was probably the best non-Crawford option off the bench on Sunday.

That left a lot of heavy lifting for Chris Paul. Again. He had a team-high 27 points, along with nine rebounds and a game-high 12 assists. He has been the best player in the series by a wide margin, but there’s only so much one man can do.

“When you lose Blake, you lose a lot,” Rivers said. “You lose the second-best passer on the team as well. Not just a scorer. We lose a lot of passing. What I don’t want to do is put so much of an onus on Chris.”

Too late.

Before Game 4, Chris Paul went through his routine in the tiny broom closet that passes for the visitors locker room at Vivint Smart Home Arena. While he stretched on the floor, he listened to Chance the Rapper on his headphones. Paul was silent most of the time — until the hook hit.

All my days, I prayed and prayed and now I see the finish line / Oh, I’m gonna finish mine.

He didn’t so much sing it as chant it out loud to himself, like a monk with a mantra. As symbolism goes, it doesn’t get much more obvious, though any meaningful finish line still seems awfully far in the distance for Paul and the Clippers — and not simply because the series is tied. Considering the pending decisions looming in the offseason, this was always going to be a critical playoff push for the Clippers. Griffin’s injury further complicates matters. J.J. Redick will be a free agent and is sure to get a massive pay raise. Paul and Griffin have early termination options and are expected to hit the open market, where they may be in line for max contracts.

Bringing back all three would explode the Clippers’ payroll and make them one of the most expensive teams of all time. With base salaries and luxury-tax penalties, different projections have ballparked the potential total at somewhere around $200–250 million. Steve Ballmer is crazy rich, but does he want to empty that much of his wallet for three guys who haven’t reached the conference finals and would all be well into their 30s when those contracts expire?

Winning 50-plus games every year is no small thing, and the Clippers have the third-best winning percentage in the league under Rivers. But if they keep failing to move beyond the second round, the incessant talk about playoff potential will eventually come off sounding like a sad, quixotic quest — if it hasn’t already. Besides, it’s not solely up to the Clippers. One or more of their free agents might simply decide it’s not working and choose to walk.

On Saturday, Paul insisted Griffin’s injury didn’t change the Clippers’ goals of winning the series and making a deep playoff run. The defiance and determination weren’t surprising. As he put it, he’s desperate to win whether it’s in a game or practice or “playing chess with my son.”

“He’s a tough guy,” Rivers said about Paul. “Stubborn, in a very positive way. All the great ones have that in them. They’re stubborn in that they aren’t gonna lose.”

It’s fair to wonder, then, if Paul might pull a Kevin Durant in the service of an easier path to a championship. He can certainly make more money if he stays with the Clippers, but he has only so many years left to chase that elusive championship. With this series against Utah, Paul passed Kirk Hinrich for most playoff games without appearing in the conference finals.

Which is yet another reason this latest Griffin injury has to be immensely frustrating to Paul and the Clippers. Even if they get past the Jazz, they haven’t defeated the Warriors in a single game since December 2014, and they’re unlikely to solve that particular problem in a seven-game series without their second-best player. That means the Clippers are right back to their familiar default position — hanging on hopes for tomorrow, even if they won’t admit it today. As Griffin told SI.com, “looking forward to next season or the next few seasons” is “never a good idea.” But with the Clippers, isn’t every year about next year?