Perhaps the Los Angeles Clippers should burn sage all across the Staples Center, in their locker room, and extend it to homes and even cars.
Because for all the positive vibes, roster depth and apparent health coming into the postseason, the franchise that can never get it right needs a cleanse after it finds itself facing a seemingly win-or-else scenario in Game 2 of its first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks.
Dallas predictably stole home-court advantage with a 113-103 win Saturday, following the familiar script we’ve all seen from the Clippers, aided by the singular brilliance of Luka Doncic. It wasn’t exactly same chapter, different verse, not for most of the game. In fact, given the earlier events of the day where the Milwaukee Bucks started to exorcise their playoff enema with a last-second overtime win against the Miami Heat, one could surmise some positive playoff juju would travel across the country in enough time to help out the Clippers.
This is what happens when every playoff loss is a referendum on the state of the franchise and the wins are mere stays of execution. One game, no matter the result, was going to disprove the Clippers’ reputation, validate the actions of the last few years or make believers of those who’ve only seen them as the Lakers’ red-headed stepchild.
It wasn’t doomed from the start, but there never was the feeling the Clippers had control of the game, or of Doncic. In some ways it felt like a continuation of the six-game affair from the bubble, in others it looked like Game 1 of a nervous playoff series.
The courting period.
In some ways, the Clippers didn’t break when they could’ve, especially Paul George shaking off a slow start to percolate in the second half, scoring 16 points on 7 for 11 shooting. It was small flashes, but you could see just what gives off the vibes of a championship team: timely defense, wondrous shot-making and superior talent.
For 44 minutes or so, you couldn’t tell the Clippers were this doomed franchise playing with anvils in their shoes.
The last four minutes showed the Acme bomb dropping, with the Clippers again playing Wile E. Coyote. Kawhi Leonard had the big throwdown over Maxi Kleiber in the third quarter, but didn’t have much when things really got tight.
“We got the same pressures as every team that’s in this,” George said. “It all comes down to who's the last team standing. And that's just the pressure every team goes through. It's no different than how we're approaching this.”
Doncic drew praise from Tyronn Lue when he was asked where Doncic ranked on his list of shot creators he’s coached against, with the Clippers head coach not hesitating to say he’s right at the top.
“He does a great job of controlling the game making guys better, and I'd say he's a big moment player, he loves a big moment,” Lue said. “He made some big shots and some deep shots, some tough shots, and that's what great players do. So we don't get discouraged by that.”
Lue presented a face of anything but panic, stating there were small errors that are correctable and less about the elephant in the room.
He should’ve seen signs of encouragement, starting with Rajon Rondo looking every bit like the playoff performer his reputation says he is — which takes playmaking pressure away from Leonard and George.
But for the structure Rondo provides the Clippers, they lack someone to make defenses uncomfortable, to get downhill and draw fouls to slow the game down before it gets out of hand.
And when a team that normally shoots 41% from three-point range goes 11 for 40 (27%), there needs to be a counter besides jacking up more threes.
“We didn’t make no shots, especially down the stretch and beginning of the game,” Leonard said. “I've missed a few easy ones. You know, but I feel like we all did, we missed some shots.”
The only thing uncomfortable so far is the Clippers’ psyche whenever Doncic is on the other side. He’s their boogeyman, and the playoff legend he’s building has all been at the expense of the Clippers — the only team he’s faced in the postseason.
Perhaps the Clippers found something in the second half when they doubled him, but it wasn’t with the same aggression we saw Memphis put on Stephen Curry on Friday night. It didn’t look urgent or desperate, it didn’t look like a franchise trying to shake a bad reputation.
And oftentimes, the result clouds our views on these things. If the Clippers won, it would’ve been because they didn’t panic, with the championship poise riding out the wave. But a loss means the Clippers are the same ol’ Clippers, the group that will never get it right no matter who’s coaching or playing.
It would be unfair and wholly impractical to put decades of ineptitude on Leonard, George and Lue. They had nothing to do with Donald Sterling’s escapades or the playoff failures of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
But there’s ownership to be taken by the trio considering where the Clippers are today, and how they’ve gotten here. Believe Lue or not, but he rested his regulars in the last days of the season, keeping them away from the champion Lakers and into the crosshairs of Doncic, who tortured them in the bubble last season.
George’s playoff performances have left plenty to be desired, inciting the ridicule by talking big at times. Leonard hasn’t talked big at all, but how can he not wear the failure of being walked down from a 3-1 deficit by the Denver Nuggets? The stink of shooting 6 for 22 in a Game 7 cost Doc Rivers his job and began the chain reaction of some roster changes.
His personal playoff history determines that he’s stellar, and no one is exempt from a stinker in games or series, so he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
Whether he or Doncic is the best player in this series remains to be seen, but he’s the one feeling it out of the two — except he’s not sweating.
“You’re gonna see this every night. Down one [game], up one,” Leonard said. “Nobody was really down. Nobody wants to lose but our spirits are still high and believe in ourselves. You know, nothing good comes easy.”
But it’s always the Clippers making it so damn hard.
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