Throughout the course of this long season, the LA Clippers were darlings of sharp bettors and league intelligentsia, even as many fans and even a healthy percentage of the Clippers’ peers sometimes wondered why.
The Clippers encouraged injured players to take plenty of time to recover, harped on the long view as a season-long mantra and load managed so aggressively that at one point, they were fined $50,000 by the NBA for breaking procedures in resting Kawhi Leonard.
All of these are considered reputable tactics in this day and age, especially for a team with fragile stars. But it seems like it all had an unfortunate side effect: the Clippers’ bad habit of procrastination. They like to leave their best play for later.
The Clippers meandered often during the season, fueling the Los Angeles Lakers and their fierce pursuit of the No. 1 seed.
In February, it was Leonard, in a rare plume of emotion, dismayed by another malaise, who commanded: “I mean, now. The time is now,” when asked when the Clippers would start acting like the sum of their parts.
All these months later, the problem is still happening. This time, it was Saturday in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
But this game was all about the first 12 minutes, in which Denver played with much more energy and effort than the Clippers, and it resulted in 44 points and a 19-point deficit.
It has long been said that the more desperate team often wins playoff games. That is the origin of the go-to quote for every losing playoff team since the creation of the podium: “[The winning team] came out more aggressive.”
It was the first quote out of coach Doc Rivers’ mouth after the game Saturday: “I thought they just played more aggressive.”
At the next Zoom, Leonard was saying the same.
That is a cop-out for teams that have legitimate title hopes, as the Clippers do. They’re a deep team with a tremendous balance of depth, star power and veteran savvy, and that means they have a large margin for error, probably the widest of any of the remaining teams.
Patrick Beverley gets thrown out of the Clippers’ Game 2 vs. the Nuggets for arguing a call late in the loss.
That’s why the Clippers were briefly within five points in the fourth quarter, despite that first-quarter steamrollering and even with Leonard and Paul George shooting a collective 11-of-36 from the field. The Nuggets, shamed by their defensive effort in Game 1, threw some double-teams the Clips’ way that were effective.
“We just need to play hard ourselves,” Rivers said. “They played with so much more force than us. … It’s amazing we had a chance.”
The Nuggets are not a team to sleep on. The Utah Jazz can offer testimony to that after their 15-point, third-quarter lead in Game 5 of their quarterfinal series blew up in a flurry of Murray jumpers. The Jazz got a little too comfortable, and now they will spend the coming months and years bracing anytime the numbers “3” and “1” and the word “lead” are assembled in a sentence.
Utah gave Denver life with that letdown, and now the Clippers have cracked the door for the Nuggets again. The Clips have been the better team for seven of the eight quarters so far in this series, but it’s 1-1.
That right there is how the first chapter of an upset story gets written.
“We’ve got to come ready. That’s it,” George said, adding another plea to this Clippers season’s annals. “There’s no blueprint to it. That’s on us. But we will be better for Game 3. There’s no pep talks for this. It’s the playoffs. We’ll be up for the fight and the challenge.”