It’s in the Clippers DNA: Los Angeles blows a 3-1 lead, collapses yet again in the playoffs

After a splashy 2019 offseason, including signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George, the 2019-20 Clippers were considered the championship favorites for the first time in franchise history. They were finally a destination organization that commanded respect.

With their gritty identity, deep supporting cast — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet — and coach Doc Rivers’ championship experience, the Clippers were the most well-rounded contender, according to Las Vegas, many NBA pundits and analytics.

Despite being a first year “super team” the hype was warranted. The Clippers appeared to have the least deficiencies.

Didn’t have a true, tried and tested big man, nor playmaking point guard. But the defense and championship pedigree of Kawhi and Doc Rivers was supposed to cover for those two weaknesses.

And for the most part it did.

The Clippers glided through the regular season, with their foot just half way on the accelerator. They finished second in the Western Conference despite looking bored with the meaningless games. Round 1 against the Dallas Mavericks was the first time we saw a real flaw. They struggled to contain Luka Doncic, the second year phenom. But once again their veteran experience and talent allowed them to over come the Mavericks attack in 6 games.

For the first 4 games of Round 2 the Clippers appeared to have solved all their issues. Through the first four games, the Clippers established themselves as the better team, going up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets as many predicted beforehand.

Midway through the third quarter of Game 5, that remained true. The Clippers were up by 16 in the third quarter.

The Clippers had the entire sports world salivating at the thought of a “Battle of LA” in the Conference Finals.

But then the Clippers did what that franchise does best: underachieved in dramatic fashion.

In Game 5 the Clippers blew their 16 point lead, losing by 6. In Game 6 they had a 19 point lead. They blew that one as well, losing by 13. And in Game 7 they held a 12 point lead, and you just kept waiting on Kawhi or Paul George to flip the switch and win the game. But it never happened.

In their biggest game of the season, the Clippers’ two superstars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, failed to match their counterparts, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

Leonard and George combined to score 24 points on 10-of-38 shooting and 4-of-18 3-point shooting in Game 7. Murray single-handedly outscored the star duo with 40 points on 15-of-26 shooting. Jokic crafted a masterful performance with 16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists, two steals and three blocks. He was the best player in the series, a problem the Clippers’ defense and coaching staff could never solve.

The Clippers 104-89 Game 7 loss will go down as the pinnacle of the franchises failures, and the list is long. It isn’t just because they were the title favorites, or had the best player in the series, or even that they had a 3-1 lead.

For the first time in the franchises history, they had real expectations, and they failed miserably.

“We didn’t meet them,” Rivers said of the team’s expectations. “That’s the bottom line. I’m the coach, and I’ll take any blame for it. But we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly, because if we had, in my opinion, we’d still be playing.”

This was the season things were supposed to be different. But this was the most Clippery finish possible. The same unfavorable result as in 2006, 2012, 2014 and 2015 — only with more pain, frustration and disappointment.

The Clippers just collapsed. Again.

We can blame Kawhi and Paul George but can we discuss Doc Rivers shortcomings in the playoffs?

Rivers is wildly regarded as one of the best head coaches in the league, and at first glance he has the resume to back that claim up. A NBA champion, 2 NBA Finals appearances, constantly in the playoffs, and overachieves with less than par rosters.

But then there is the page on his resume that is ugly. Rivers has blown a 3-1 lead on 3 different occasions. In 7 years with the Clippers, he never once got the team out of the second round. And looking back, only getting one ring out of that Boston Celtics team is laughable.

In this series, Rivers failed miserably.

Rivers, similar to Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer against the Miami Heat, failed to push the right buttons in the series.

The Clippers never figured out an effective and consistent way to defend the Nuggets’ Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll actions.

Rivers’ stubborn reliance on Williams and Harrell, even when they struggled offensively and were glaring defensive minuses, cost the team in both the regular season and the postseason.

The Clippers may have been deep on paper, but their defense and versatility was frontloaded with their starters.

They led the league in bench scoring during the regular season, but their second unit lacked size, rebounding and defensive acumen. Williams and Harrell folded under constant defensive pressure. Shamet didn’t hit shots consistently and battled injuries. Green, their projected ninth man, was their best player. Jackson was one of the worst defenders in the postseason.

The players spoke post game, with their heads down and one common sentiment: chemistry.

“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Williams said. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short.

“Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time. I thought we were moving in the right direction at the end of the year before the COVID thing happened and coming in after the break. … Continuity is very important.”

The arrival of Leonard and George changed the external expectations dramatically and reshuffled the team’s hierarchy. Remarkably confident role players like Williams, Harrell and Beverley, who enjoyed success in larger roles during the 2018-19 season, had to take a step backward. The adjustment was always somewhat awkward.

“You go from last year, we were the team that wasn’t expected to make the playoffs to going and being a championship-caliber team when you bring in two high-level guys,” Williams said. “That’s an adjustment. Trezz and I, we had to adjust our games. I think everybody had to sacrifice and put themselves in a different position and that type of thing takes time, especially when you’re doing it for years at a time.

“For Kawhi, he just won a championship with a completely different group of guys, to come here. Paul was in a different situation. There were so many different moving parts. So just working out in the gym, it doesn’t happen. It takes time.”

The injuries, load management and unforeseen circumstances of COVID, further prevented them from ever fully jelling.

Rivers, who had been vocal and candid about the team’s lack of practice and on-court reps together all season, wouldn’t use that as an excuse for the team’s shortcomings.

“I’m not going to make an excuse,” Rivers said. “Denver beat us. Denver was the better team. We had 35 or 40 different lineups. We had all that stuff. But once you get to the playoffs, throw that all out the window and you’ve got to perform. You’ve got to perform better. You’ve got to execute better. You’ve got to trust better. You’ve got to play better as a team.”

Kawhi Leonard, who is normally quiet and reserved, was very critical of both himself and the team in his post game presser.

“We just couldn’t make no shots,” Leonard said. “That’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots, and we gotta know what exact spots we need to be.

“And you know, just gotta carry over and get smarter as a team. Get smarter. Basketball IQ got to get better.”

Until the bitter end, the Clippers teased with their seductive potential.

They were a top-five offense and defense, with two superstars, a loaded rotation and an impressive coaching staff. They carried themselves with a defending-championship-level swagger that was offputting at times, and that overconfidence might have led to their untimely demise.

There will be no Battle for L.A. There will be no Kawhi vs. LeBron showdown. The Clippers didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

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