The L.A. Clippers were the laughing stock of the NBA.
Like the Chicago Cubs in baseball or the L.A. Rams in football, the Clippers were long the punchline in every joke that began with “Yeah, that’ll happen when pigs fly” and ended with “the L.A. Clippers win the NBA Championship.”
And then, something changed.
Blake Griffin emerged as an exciting young superstar, a phenom with the kind of star power that led many to be certain that, given the Clippers past, would be sure to move to a contending team as soon as his contract would allow.
Then Chris Paul showed up.
A team that once showed flashes of promise now had two things every championship team needs: a playmaker and a general. Where Griffin could power his way into the lane, often ending his drives with thunderous dunks, Paul provided the grit and leadership. All they needed now was a solid center, and the Clippers could be on to something.
Enter, DeAndre Jordan.
Last year, amidst controversy and scandal involving the Clippers’ previous owner, Donald Sterling, the Clippers were stopped just shy of the Western Conference finals, a round of postseason that has thus far always eluded the team. This year, with venerable leader Doc Rivers captaining the ship and new owner Steve Ballmer in place, it was supposed to be the Clippers year. Perhaps they could finally make it to the Western Conference finals. Maybe they could even make it to the NBA Finals.
Then, something remarkable happened. The Clippers got good. Real good.
As the Clippers caught fire, most people began to think that if the team fired on all cylinders, the only obstacle preventing them from the finals would be the white hot Golden State Warriors.
The Houston Rockets had other ideas.
The Rockets were in a state similar to the Clippers having long been removed from the success of the mid-90’s when Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to two straight NBA championships. They were mired in mediocrity until Dwight Howard and James Harden came to town. Then, suddenly, they were contenders.
Still, when the Clippers and Rockets entered into this series, most figured the Clippers, who had gotten hot at the right time, would dispatch the Rockets in short order. Indeed, the Clippers played like that during certain times, even with Paul ailing with ligament issues. Paul, the heart of the team and a man who has made his reputation on excelling in clutch situations, was suddenly a question mark and would miss the first game of the series. Still, the Clippers looked dominate, and heading into game six, it seemed all but a foregone conclusion that the Clippers would win and enter into the Western Conference finals for the first time in the team’s history.
The Houston Rockets had other ideas.
Heading into the fourth quarter of Game 6, the Clippers were cruising. Ahead by almost 20 points, it looked as if the Clippers were on their way to throwing the albatross off their back. Maybe they got over-confident, or perhaps they took their foot off the gas. But as any championship caliber competitor knows, when you have your opponent on the ropes, you have to finish them off. Step down on their throats, is the old adage.
The Clippers didn’t do that.
Instead, the Houston Rockets, with the heart of their team Harden on the bench, mounted one of the most impressive and memorable comebacks in NBA history, making up the 19 points they were down and sticking a dagger into the hearts of Clipper Nation. Clipper fans were stunned. The Clippers were stunned. And with only one game left and the series now tied, the momentum, so important in situations like these, swung wildly to the Rockets’ side.
Today, the teams meet in Game 7, and it isn’t hyperbolic to state that the future of the L.A. Clippers hinges on this one game. This was the Clipper team that was supposed to break the curse, the team that could win it all.
If the Clippers manage to win, it not only means entering the Western Conference finals for the first time in team history and being four wins away from the championship round, it also means getting back what they lost in Game 7. Overcoming such adversity fortifies will and forges grit in teams like this. It could be the momentum boost that, following the dominant defeat of defending champs the San Antonio Spurs, could elevate the Clippers swagger and confidence enough to overcome all challenges.
But of the Clippers lose, it could not only be gutting for Clipper Nation, but for the Clippers as a team.
Chris Paul was supposed to be a Laker. Paul was traded to the team before that trade was vetoed by then-NBA commissioner David Stern. All he wants to do is win. If it turns out that the load of carrying this Clipper team was too heavy, it isn’t inconceivable that Paul ask to be traded, or simply wait until his contract expires and go to another team, potentially even back to the purple and gold he was supposed to be with.
Blake Griffin’s contract is up next year, and rumors are already abounding that he could be bound for the Portland Trailblazers. What would the L.A. Clippers of the mid-2010s look like without Paul and Griffin?
Probably a lot like the Clippers have always looked.
This Game 7 is make or break, not only for Chris Paul’s legacy, one built on grit and perseverance but marred by a perceived inability to “win the big one.” The Clippers, who have worked so hard in recent years to change the long-held perception of their past, could be doomed to repeat it. If the Clippers lose, the rhetoric will be, “same ol’ Clippers.” The scuttlebutt will be, “Chris Paul is a very good player, but not a great player, because great players win championships.” The haters will say, “Blake Griffin is all flash and can’t be a true team leader.”
There is a lot riding on today’s Game 7. More than just a trip to the next round of the playoffs and a potential trip the NBA Finals. If the L.A. Clippers lose Game 7, it isn’t hyperbolic to say that they could lose everything.