LOS ANGELES – What’s up with the Clippers?
I get that a lot. A lot.
I covered them for four eventful years, so I understand why people ask: Weren’t the Clippers supposed to be good this season? Weren’t they supposed to be a championship contender?
So why are they 34-33? And what was up with the five-game free fall that sent them tumbling down the Western Conference standings, from fourth to eighth in a week, from fine to fringe play-in participant?
Heck if I know!
This team, I tell you. The ol’ riddle wrapped in an enigma. Wrapped in bacon. Decorated with a gaudy vinyl vehicle wrap. Preserved with Saran wrap. Beneath a layer of holiday gift wrap. With a bow in the shape of a question mark.
The Clippers make no sense.
Sunday night’s 135-129 victory over the beleaguered Memphis Grizzlies was the Clippers’ experience reduced to its confounding essence.
Going into it, fans expected something had to change. A team descending head-on into the abyss would be searching desperately for a ripcord, right? Right?
Somewhat defiantly, Coach Tyronn Lue trotted out another starting lineup with struggling forward Marcus Morris Sr. included. And that group seemed to shrug at Paul George’s sudden burst of aggression, his 19 first-half points that came mainly on committed drives to the basket.
Despite George’s output – he, at least, felt some “desperation” early in Sunday’s game, he said – and despite facing a severely short-handed Grizzlies team whose absences included electric-but-suspended All-Star Ja Morant, the Clippers led by only six at halftime.
And then things got bleak.
Through little effort of their own, the Clippers wound up on the wrong end of one of the most outrageous quarters in NBA history, a 51-point third-quarter onslaught. Fifty-one! Something that’d happened only 27 times in NBA history.
It was embarrassing. But when the quarter closed, only the Clippers’ fourth-year guard Terance Mann showed much emotion, kicking at the air while many of his teammates turned to watch performers dunk off trampolines, putting on a better show than the home team.
Was this it?
Was the Clippers’ 213 era – these four seasons with Kawhi Leonard, No. 2, and George, No. 13, on the team, their presence supposedly turning the ever-woebegone franchise into a contender – finally, officially cooked? How far-reaching would the fallout be, if there was any, after a loss like this?
Yes, there would be 16 regular-season games left, 11 of them against fellow Western Conference foes. But would it matter? Those felt so faraway and academic Sunday night, when the unease inside Crytpo.com Arena was palpable.
There were a smattering of boos, and there were audible appeals – all of them unrequited – from fans who wanted to see more of Mann, something at all of Robert Covington or no more of Morris.
At about 8:54 p.m. and with the Clippers trailing, somehow, by just 15, it was hard to imagine that Lue’s listless crew would have the fortitude to bounce back from such a stomping in such a vital game by such a short-handed squad – at home!
END Q3: Grizzlies 112, Clippers 97
Clippers started the third on a 5-0 run to take an 11-point lead, and then Memphis took them out back and probably ended their season. During a run of tough results, tonight is probably the cherry on top of a roadkill sundae.
— 𝐉𝐮𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐧 𝐑𝐮𝐬𝐬𝐨 (@FlyByKnite) March 6, 2023
It felt like an inflection point. Different situation, separate scenario, but with stakes similar to those in Game 3 in the first round of the 2021 Western Conference playoffs – and with a similarly stunning plot twist, which is why I can’t ever count out the Clippers.
Can’t count on them, either. But can’t count ’em out.
Two seasons ago, they’d dubiously maneuvered their way into an opening-round matchup with Luka Doncic and the Dallas, which promptly handed them two losses at home.
So there were the Clippers, on the ropes again, these alleged contenders who’d just suffered the ignominy of blowing a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the bubble playoffs the previous season. This time, it was Dallas delivering the proverbial punch to the mouth, going for the knockout by going up 30-11 in Game 3.
But then the Clippers’ stars came out.
Leonard started hitting that late-May evening, finishing with 36 points on 13-for-17 shooting. George added 29 points, sinking 11 of his 18 looks. And the Clippers were on their way to a victory that started them down a path to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, and which might’ve extended further had Leonard not suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament along the way.
Similarly, on Sunday, the stars donned their capes and fought back together for the first time in a long time, George reeling off eight consecutive points and Leonard piling another nine on top of that, drilling jumpers and dunking.
Together, Kawhi and PG combined for 25 fourth-quarter points on 8-of-10 shooting, engineering a stunning in-game turnaround that, yes, might have saved this Clippers season.
“It felt like the stakes were high,” Lue concurred Sunday night. “Losing five in a row, for a team that has a lot of talent. We’re a good team, a championship-caliber team. …
“Tonight,” he added, “was a good start for us.”
It’s true. There are players in the Clippers’ locker room who believe – who really, truly believe – in their team’s potential, who can see it. And who have a sense of the amorphous element missing from the veteran-laden squad.
And not from the new guy, Russell Westbrook.
The Clippers felt the fire from their leaders Sunday, from the famously stoic Leonard and the easygoing George, whose demeanors tend not to change, regardless of result.
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It took them being backed all the way into the corner to produce it, but now people are going to be asking whether they can reproduce it Wednesday against Toronto, and then Saturday against New York, and so on.
Did George think Sunday’s turnaround might have reset the breaker in the Clippers’ camp?
He didn’t know, either.
“I mean, we’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see with the run that we go on from here. This means nothing if we don’t buy into what we can do and what we can be. If we don’t treat the next games with the same (energy) that we treated that fourth quarter tonight, then what are we doing here, you know?
“So, yeah. We’ll see.”
2⃣1⃣3⃣ combined for 76 points in the win.
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— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) March 6, 2023