“We think, as long as we have this roster, we are capable and have the potential to (win a championship),” Redick said. “Last year, we had injuries in the playoffs. The year before, we blew a 3-1 lead, but nobody talks about the fact that (Clippers point guard) Chris (Paul) missed the first two games of that series because of a hamstring injury. We had to deal with the (former Clippers owner Donald) Sterling mess the year before.
“I don’t know if it’s the Clippers’ curse or whatever, but we’ve had to deal with a lot at a bad time. For our group, we look at this postseason as another potential championship. That’s how we’re looking at it. First thing’s first: we need to get out of the first round.”
Unfortunately for Redick and his teammates, Los Angeles was unable to escape that “curse or whatever” in this year’s playoffs. The Clippers fell to the Jazz in their seven-game series, but it wasn’t just losing to Utah. The Clippers lost Blake Griffin to a big-toe injury in a Game 3 win and couldn’t build on their 2-1 series lead. Griffin’s absence and another first-round exit added another brutal chapter to the book full of LA’s recent postseason misery.
Dating back to 2013, the Clippers have blown five straight playoff series leads. The numbers are stunning when you consider this team has three All-Star level players (Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) in the starting lineup and a championship coach (Doc Rivers) who has led the team to four consecutive 50-plus win seasons. (Clippers owner Steve Ballmer may not want to look at what’s below.)
So, what’s the problem here? Should we just blame Paul for not having the “clutch gene” and call it a day? Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
Let’s travel back in time to when Paul first joined the Clippers and figured out what went wrong in each postseason. (If that’s not your thing, again, just yell “CP3 is a choke artist!” and enjoy your angry walk home.)
2012: Paul was traded to the Clippers on Dec. 14, 2011, effectively creating the “Lob City” moniker. The Clippers finished 40-26 in a lockout-shortened season, marking their first season above .500 since the 2005-06 Clippers led by Elton Brand went 47-35. What some may forget is LA’s foray into the playoffs began on a high note. The Clippers completed the largest comeback in playoff history (26 points, later tied by this year’s Cavs against the Pacers) to beat the Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first-round series. They took down Memphis in seven games to advance to the conference semifinals before being swept by the Spurs.
Blame percentages: The Clippers pulled out a playoff series win after being consistently terrible for a long time. Hard to blame them for losing to the top seed and clearly better team. Let’s go all blame-the-Spurs here (100 percent). This will probably be such a terrible burden for them as they cry on their championship rings.
2013: After a franchise-record 56 wins in the regular season, the 2013 playoffs saw the Clippers and Grizzlies engage in a first-round rematch. Los Angeles grabbed an early 2-0 lead to protect its home-court advantage, but Memphis rattled off four straight wins to take this series in six games. Griffin suffered a high ankle sprain in Game 5 that severely limited him in Game 6, and Paul earned an ejection in the final contest to close the season on a low note.
Paul signed a five-year contract after the season to stay in Los Angeles, with then-owner Donald Sterling all but confirming he fired coach Vinny Del Negro in order to persuade Paul to stay. The Clippers then traded a future first-round pick to the Celtics to acquire Rivers. (Boston used that pick to select R.J. Hunter at No. 28 in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was released by the team in 2016 and currently plays for the Long Island Nets in the D-League.) LA also added Redick as part of a three-team trade in summer 2013, forming a new core that would lead the team for years to come.
Blame percentages: Griffin’s ankle played a role, though the Grizzlies had already won two games before the injury. It’s difficult to say how much the dynamic between Paul and Del Negro affected the team, as Paul maintained he had nothing to do with the firing while other reports pointed to Paul as a primary reason Del Negro was let go.
We will divide it this way: Griffin injury (17 percent), Del Negro coaching and relationship with Paul (11 percent), Zach Randolph (15 percent), Marc Gasol (15 percent), Mike Conley (15 percent), Grit (13 percent), Grind (14 percent).
2014: Under Rivers, the Clippers again broke the franchise record for wins, finishing 57-25 and winning the Pacific Division for the second consecutive season. However, Rivers’ first season at the helm was marred by Sterling after he was heard making racist remarks to his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, on an audio recording obtained by TMZ. NBA commissioner Adam Silver hit Sterling with a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine, but the entire ordeal lasted more than two years before Sterling finally ended his legal battle over the sale of the franchise. (Ballmer bought the Clippers in August 2014.)
At the time, the Clippers couldn’t escape the dark cloud of Sterling in the midst of their first-round series against the Warriors, and players faced constant questions about his disparaging comments. They managed to defeat the Warriors in seven games (the last time Golden State was eliminated by a Western Conference team) before facing the dynamic Thunder duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Clippers-Thunder series was tied at 2-2 with Los Angeles in firm control of Game 5 near the end of the fourth quarter. With four minutes left in the game, the Clippers led 101-88, and despite allowing OKC to go on a mini-run, still held a seven-point advantage with 50 seconds left. Combine a few Thunder buckets, a bad Paul turnover, some questionable calls and a final possession in which LA didn’t get a shot off, and the Thunder came out with a 105-104 victory. OKC captured that pivotal Game 5 and followed it up with a win in Game 6, closing out the series and the Clippers’ season.
Blame percentages: The initial instinct is to blame everything on Sterling given that he is an awful amalgam of personal racism and professional ineptitude. But the on-court failures are too much to completely ignore, particularly the inexplicable Paul jump pass. If he holds the ball, he likely gets fouled, hits two free throws and closes the game out.
Here’s the breakdown: Sterling saga (53 percent), Paul turnover and late-game collapse (20 percent), Westbrook and Durant doing Westbrook and Durant things (20 percent), questionable officiating (7 percent).
2015: In a heavyweight first-round bout that felt more like a conference finals matchup, the No. 3 Clippers took on the No. 6 Spurs. The series needed a full seven games, with the final three contests decided by a total of 12 points. Paul penned his playoff magnum opus in Game 7, scoring 27 points (9 of 13 from the field, 5 of 6 from 3-point range and an insane 172 offensive rating) on a bad hamstring, including the game-winner over the outstretched arm of Tim Duncan.
The elation against the Spurs would only be rivaled by the disappointment against the Rockets in the next round. The Clippers managed a split in the first two games with Paul sidelined because of that strained hamstring. With Paul back in the fold, LA won Game 3 by 25 points and Game 4 by 33 points. A commanding 3-1 lead following two dominant performances? This was the year the Clippers reached the conference finals — until it wasn’t.
After losing Game 5 in Houston, the Clippers, at one point ahead by 19 in the second half of Game 6 at Staples Center, entered the fourth quarter up 92-79. What followed was one of the most furious and confounding comebacks in NBA playoff history. The Rockets outscored the Clippers 40-15 in the final frame behind offensive outbursts from Josh Smith (19 points, plus-11 for the game) and Corey Brewer (19 points, plus-32 for the game), while MVP candidate James Harden sat on the bench.
The Rockets hit everything. The Clippers missed open looks and played to run out the clock rather than score. Even Jordan’s attempt to save a loose ball landed in Brewer’s lap for an open 3-pointer. Los Angeles didn’t recover, falling in Game 7 and blowing its best opportunity to fight for the Western Conference crown.
Blame percentages: This one feels like it’s all on the Clippers given the lead in Game 6, but we must account for Paul’s early injury and divine intervention here — divine intervention meaning Smith and Brewer going a combined 6 of 12 from beyond the arc despite both shooting under 30 percent from 3 for their careers.
The final breakdown: Game 6 collapse (57 percent), Smith and Brewer defying the will of the basketball gods (21 percent), Paul missing the first two games which resulted in a 1-1 split (13 percent), Game 6 hangover leading into Game 7 loss (8.5 percent), Harden’s beard (0.5 percent).
2016: The stars appeared to align in LA as Stephen Curry went down with a knee injury at the start of the 2016 playoffs. If the Clippers handled the Trail Blazers in the first round, they would advance to play a potentially weakened Warriors team in the conference semifinals. Unfortunately, any dreams of a title run came crashing down quickly.
Paul and Griffin suffered injuries of their own in Game 4 against Portland, both of the season-ending variety. Griffin re-injured his quad while Paul got his hand stuck on Gerald Henderson’s shorts, breaking his third metacarpal on a freak play. The Trail Blazers tied the series at 2-2 with a win in Game 4, then brushed off the rest of the Clippers in Games 5 and 6. Whereas the Rockets series hurt because it was a blown chance, this one stung simply because the chance was taken away.
Blame percentages: While the Trail Blazers beat the Clippers with Paul and Griffin logging normal minutes in Game 3, it’s hard not to imagine this series playing out differently with both guys, particularly Paul, available for the entire matchup.
We’ll give Portland credit while acknowledging Los Angeles won the first two games of the series by 20 and 21 points: Paul and Griffin injuries (67 percent), Trail Blazers closing it out (22 percent), Damian Lillard’s scoring ability (6 percent), Damian Lillard’s bar-spitting ability (5 percent).
2017: As noted above, the Griffin injury hurt, but so did not taking advantage of Rudy Gobert missing nearly the entirety of Game 1 with a knee injury. Yes, Paul had a poor Game 7 by his standards to close the series (13 points and nine assists on 6-of-19 shooting). But the Clippers don’t force a winner-take-all contest unless Paul goes nuts at the end of Game 6. Utah’s Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson deserve praise for their performances as well.
Blame percentages: Griffin injury (33 percent), Blown Game 1 opportunity (19 percent), “Iso Joe” (18 percent), Hayward’s slick shooting (17 percent), Paul’s poor Game 7 (8 percent), Hayward’s slick hair (5 percent).
As you can see, it’s not fair to place singular responsibility on a star such as Paul for the Clippers failing to reach the conference finals. If you want to argue that Paul blew Game 7 against the Jazz, then you must recognize his stellar 25.3 points and 9.9 assists per game for the entire series on 50-37-88 shooting splits. That’s without mentioning his Game 7 effort against the Spurs in 2015 and his 25.8 career playoff player efficiency rating, fifth-best in NBA history behind only Michael Jordan, George Mikan, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.
It’s also inaccurate to say that Los Angeles has been a victim of injuries and poor timing when there have been opportunities to advance or at the very least improve the odds of advancing. Clippers players would probably tell you as much. And Rivers isn’t off the hook for his role on the sideline and in the front office. One look at his draft history is enough to make most Clippers fans shake their heads in disgust.
Much like Paul Pierce’s spot on the Clippers’ bench, the truth sits somewhere in the middle when it comes to the blame game in LA.