The L.A. Clippers play a resurgent Houston Rockets in game 7 of the NBA Western Conference semi-finals tonight, but the biggest threats they’ll face may well be the weight of history and expectation, rather than the slashing drives of James Harden or Josh Smith’s three-point shooting.
Victory in Houston would put the Clippers — and several of their star players — in a conference finals for the very first time, and go some way to putting to bed the never-do-well narrative that has, despite its recent relative success, dogged this franchise over the years.
Indeed, it’s a feat the Clippers should have already accomplished, and the fact that they are even involved in a game 7 in this series will heap even more pressure on Doc Rivers and his players. For one thing, the Clippers had a seemingly commanding 3-1 lead going into game 5 at Houston’s Toyota Centre last Tuesday.
But the Rockets, led by an ailing Harden’s triple-double, won 124-103 to avoid elimination. Game 6, on Thursday night was even more harrowing for the Clippers. This time, Harden sat out the entire fourth quarter as the Clippers — with star players Blake Griffin and Chris Paul at the fore, as usual — led by as many as 19 points, before imploding late in the game to lose again, 119-107.
It’s the manner of that loss, the ease with which the Clippers capitulated with victory within their grasp, that has again raised doubts about this franchise’s battle for the big time.
Interestingly, for all the failures the Clippers franchise has piled up over the years, they have history on their side this time. Somewhat. First, as CBS Sports highlights, of all the teams in NBA history that have led a series 3-1 and have then been taken all the way, 72 percent of them have eventually won the series. Second, according to the New York Times, in this current incarnation of the franchise — since Paul arrived in 2011 — the Clippers have faced a game 7 on three occasions, and they’ve won them all.
That the most recent game 7 win was in this year’s first round elimination of the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs should offer Clippers fans some optimism going into tonight’s game. Yet, coming back from a 3-2 deficit to take game 7 on home court — as the Clippers did against San Antonio — is an entirely different proposition from what they face now. If anything, the roles are reversed this time, and the Clippers could require an entirely different mentality to prevail.
There’ll be some individual demons to slay as well. Not least with Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul. At 29 and in his 10th season in the league, Paul has a well-earned reputation as one of the best guards in the history of the game. His career playoff numbers — average 20.8 points, 9.5 assists, and 2.3 steals per game, according the Bleacher Report — are simply outstanding.
His series clinching, hamstring-injury defying heroics against San Antonio was just an example of the spectacular play that Paul has displayed in his time with the Clippers and before. Yet, the fact that Paul has never graced a conference final remains — fairly or not — a reason for some to question is legacy.
For him, tonight’s game offers another opportunity to set that straight. That extra motivation, if it was ever needed, should be a good thing for the Clippers.
[Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]