Frauds. That’s what the Clippers proved themselves to be after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets. I can’t believe it, yet when you think back on the past year, it’s easy to believe. Isn’t this who the Clippers were all season long? The streakiness, lack of chemistry, holes on defense, and looks of straight-up boredom have been here since October. What just happened is nothing new.
But many of us bought into the Clippers anyway as legitimate contenders to win the NBA Finals because of their talent. The Clippers have two All-Stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are one of the league’s best pick-and-roll duos in recent years. They had the versatility to play Ivica Zubac at center, or insert Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green to play small ball. They have Patrick Beverley to play defense and Landry Shamet to shoot. This was a superteam, and Doc Rivers, one of six active coaches with a ring, is drawing up the plays.
But now Rivers has been the head coach of three teams that have blown a 3-1 lead. Yes, you read that right: three blown 3-1 leads. There have been only 13 of those in NBA history. He’s also coached three teams that have blown 3-2 leads. The losses are as follows:
- 2003 Round 1, Magic blow a 3-1 lead to Pistons
- 2009 Round 2, Celtics blow a 3-2 lead to Magic
- 2010 NBA Finals, Celtics blow a 3-2 lead to Lakers
- 2012 East finals, Celtics blow a 3-2 lead to Heat
- 2015 Round 2, Clippers blow a 3-1 lead to Rockets
- 2020 Round 2, Clippers blow a 3-1 lead to Nuggets
The NBA is obviously a player’s league, and winning an NBA Finals requires big-time performances from stars, but Doc has had the stars. This Clippers team had Kawhi and George. Past Clippers teams had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Those three Celtics teams had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The Magic had Tracy McGrady.
Blowing leads is a trend for Rivers, and that’s often due to a lack of adjustments. Why wouldn’t Williams’s minutes dwindle when he couldn’t stop anyone? How long are you going to stick with Harrell when he looks lost in the pick-and-roll? Why continue to double Nikola Jokic as the Nuggets pick them apart time and time again? He could’ve put Kawhi on Jokic sooner. He could’ve tried Green or Morris at center with perimeter-oriented lineups and played small ball, just like we’ve seen virtually every other team in the semifinals do at some point. He could’ve made a tough call. But Doc’s inaction led to a blown series lead. For the sixth time.
The Clippers players aren’t without blame, though. Kawhi shot 6-for-22 in Game 7, which wasn’t enough. He took 39 shots during his four-bouncer buzzer-beater Game 7 to lead the Raptors to a win over the Sixers last year. He often looked passive in this series, either by not looking for his shot or just not driving with the same level of aggression we’ve come to expect from him. Kawhi rightfully deserves the accolades he received for his championship with Toronto, but the leftover Raptors proved this year they had a great team surrounding Leonard. This time around, Kawhi was unable to elevate the play of his teammates to a championship level. Whether it’s due to his underwhelming scoring in Game 7, his average playmaking, or his nonvocal leadership style, it wasn’t enough. I don’t ever want to hear anyone argue that Kawhi is better than LeBron again.
Paul George was even worse. He shot 4-for-16 in Game 7. In closeout games, he’s now a career 12-13 (including 3-7 the past five seasons) while averaging 19.5 points with a middling 52.9 true shooting percentage and only 3.6 assists. This is the guy whom Kawhi wanted in order to sign with the Clippers, and for whom they gave up everything: seven first-round draft picks (including pick swaps), Danilo Gallinari, and one of the best young guards in the NBA, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It’s hard to blame Clippers management here: Their savvy moves and smart drafting were what put them in a position to even contend for Leonard. Once a future Hall of Famer in his prime has interest, you have to do everything you can to sign him. It’s Leonard’s push for the trade that could end up being the mistake unless George can be a top-10 player again, like he was in his last season with the Thunder, and moves past his growing list of struggles in big playoff games.
“A lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out. Chemistry didn’t,” Williams said after the game. “We’re a highly talented group and we just came up short. Chemistry is something you have to build.” Better start soon. Both Leonard and George can become free agents in 2021, as they have player options for the 2021-22 season. Those two alone are good enough to keep the Clippers in the championship mix. But how do the Clippers bolster their championship odds next season when the Lakers will still be contenders, the Warriors will be back with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and other young teams like the Nuggets, Mavericks, and Jazz could all get better? The West is only about to get harder.
The Clippers don’t have a single tradable draft pick until 2028. Zubac or Shamet are two young players who could have some value around the league, but not for anything that dramatically moves the needle. The Clippers don’t have cap space, meaning they’ll only have their midlevel exception available to sign a player from a weak crop of free agents.
Harrell, Morris, and Green will be unrestricted free agents. Who do you bring back? Maybe you buy one or two high second-round draft picks if a team is looking to sell theirs, but even then, there’s no guarantee that prospect ends up making a rotation. Doc has never really loved playing rookies. Maybe team owner Steve Ballmer makes a dramatic change and fires Doc to get a new voice at head coach.
Moving on from Doc could be too extreme of a decision for Ballmer unless the players pushed for a change in their exit meetings. After all, Rivers is a good coach. He has meant a lot to the franchise, carrying them through the Donald Sterling fiasco and running the front office for a time. Rivers might not be great, but it’s still hard to find good coaching. That’s why the Clippers traded a first-round pick to the Celtics for him seven years ago. Regardless, there’s a strong possibility the Clippers end up having to run it back with a team that just underwhelmed for a whole year and then capped it off with a blown 3-1 lead.
“I think, internally, we always felt this was not a championship-or-bust year for us,” George admitted after Game 7. But it should have been—time is short in the NBA. Immense pressure will be on the Clippers to win it all in 2021. George and Leonard wanted to go to Los Angeles to play close to home, but who knows what could happen if they fall short again. George already ditched Indiana and Oklahoma City. Leonard pushed his way out of San Antonio, the league’s winningest franchise, and left Toronto weeks after winning a title. Anything and everything is on the table from the Clippers, from winning a championship to entering a total rebuild with no draft picks. So, a big congratulations to the Nuggets: You came back from 3-1 again, you’re advancing to the Western Conference finals, and you might have just doomed the future of an entire organization.