Not long after the LA Clippers’ season collapsed in a fantastic way, coach Doc Rivers said the finger can be pointed at him for the team’s failure to meet its huge championship expectations.
After the Clippers were fully exposed for a third straight game in a 104-89 defeat to the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Rivers said the title expectations were not too heavy for his team, even though the Clippers failed to reach what many thought the entire season would be a West Finals showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We did not meet them,” Rivers said of the expectations. “That’s the bottom line. I̵
The Clippers wasted a 3-1 lead in the best of seven series in epic fashion. They lost double-digit leads of 16, 19 and 12 points respectively in the last three games as the franchise’s Western Conference final drought reached 50 years.
The Rivers are the only coach in NBA history to have lost a 3-1 lead in three playoff series after doing so with the Clippers in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets and with the Orlando Magic in the first round against Detroit Pistons in 2003.
However, this team was considered a championship candidate from the moment the Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard in free agency and traded for Paul George.
“We are disappointed,” said Lou Williams, who fought and shot 4-for-27 over the arc in the series. “Simple and clear, we are furious. We were up 3-1. We had two chances to win this series and we did not.”
Williams added: “I think a lot of the problems we ran into, talent saved us. Chemistry didn’t. In this series, it failed us.”
Leonard, a two-time NBA Finals MVP who led the Toronto Raptors to a championship last season before signing with LA in free agency, said the Clippers need to improve their basketball IQ and develop the chemistry that championship teams do, after their collapse.
“We just couldn’t make any shots,” said Leonard, who shot 1-on-11 in the second half. “It’s when it comes to the team’s chemistry, knowing what we have to run to get the ball in spots, or just if someone gets doubled or they pack the paint, try to get other guys to make shots and we need to know what exact spots we need to be.
“And you know, just have to transfer and get smarter as a team. Get smarter. Basketball IQ gets better.”
In the season’s biggest game, Leonard and George combined 10-for-38, including 4-for-18 from beyond the arc, for a total of 24 points in game 7. When things started to roll out in the second half of the third straight game, the Clippers completely paralyzed out and the Nuggets overcame them 50-28 over the last 22 minutes, 50 seconds.
“I was never comfortable. I just was not,” Rivers said of the Clippers’ 3-1 series lead. “I just knew in terms of conditioning, like we had guys who just could not play minutes, and it’s hard, you know. I mean, there were two or three times a night where we actually started getting it going, and a “Guy had to come out. I mean, that’s what it is. So no, I was never comfortable. I can tell you that up front. I told our coaches that.”
It’s been a struggle all season for the Clippers to find chemistry. Leonard and George slowly worked their way back from injuries that came into the season. Mixing the two stars together with last season’s gritty group of veterans who overachieved was a task. Plus, the Clippers handled constant interruptions from injuries to mid-season additions. When they first began to see a glimpse of getting together, the coronavirus pandemic hit and the season was stopped for four plus months.
Not long after they arrived at the bubble for the restart of the season, life got in the way and the Clippers were disturbed by Montrezl Harrell, Williams and Patrick Beverley, who all had to travel to funerals for their loved ones. The three key role players each time missed time because they were out of the bubble and had to be quarantined. Harrell was off the floor for a month.
“A lot of adversity we dealt with,” said George, who shot 1-on-7 in the second half on Tuesday. “Right. You know, guys had to go home for legitimate reasons. We just missed a lot of time being with injuries in the regular season and inside the bubble.”
George said the organization has talked about how the Clippers are built to fight for more than this season. But it will take some time for the team to get over the latest spot on a franchise story filled with loss and heartache.
“It was obvious pressure to live up to the title expectations,” George said. “But as a player, I think you want it … It’s no cop-out. The fact is, we did not live up to that expectation.
“But I think internally we have always felt that this is not a championship year for us. You know we can only get better the longer we stay together and the more we are around each other. More chemistry to [the] group, the better. I think that’s really the story of the band this season. We just did not have enough time together. “