The basketball gods have something against Chris Paul. This was supposed to be the year the 12-time NBA All-Star was going to win a NBA Championship. His Phoenix Suns dominated the league during the regular season, but they met their end with a "he's already dead, make it stop" womping at the hands of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
Luka, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson scored a combined 89 points while the team collectively went 19-39 from three-point land in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. The final result was a 33-point beat down, which somehow makes it seem closer than it actually was, and an early exit for the Suns. This one particularly hurts because Phoenix's shortcomings weren't because of a Chris Paul injury. This time, they just couldn't get it done.
You can't put the blame entirely on Paul, although, his monstrous one point through nearly three quarters doesn't do him any favors. But this isn't the first time Paul has been a part of a team with championship caliber that's collapsed.
The 2014-15 Los Angeles Clippers had all the makings of a title squad, but like the Suns, they choked in the Western Conference semifinals. The Suns still have the pieces to win (I think? Last night was a real wake up call), however, for the Los Angeles Clippers, the 2015 NBA Playoffs were their best chance -- a chance that ended with one of the most spectacular collapses in recent memory.
The 2014-15 Los Angeles Clippers
The "Lob City" era Los Angeles Clippers was pure entertainment. Chris Paul would dissect defenders, get into the paint and throw an alley-oop to either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. J.J. Redick would hit threes. Matt Barnes would play defense. Jamal Crawford was a spark plug off the bench. Doc Rivers manned the sideline.
On paper, "Lob City" was at the height of its powers in 2015. The core of Paul, Griffin, Redick, Jordan, Barnes and Crawford had built chemistry. They went 56-26 in the regular season, but the final day of the year shook up the Western Conference seeding. The New Orleans Pelicans beat the San Antonio Spurs 108-103 to sneak into the field as the eight-seed. San Antonio's loss, along with wins by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, dropped them from potentially snagging the two-seed to the sixth seed.
So, instead of facing someone like the Dallas Mavericks or Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers had to square off against the defending champs in the opening round. The Clips ended up pulling out the series win thanks to Paul playing the game of his life on an injured hamstring in Game 7. Their reward? A second-round series date with the Houston Rockets.
LA won three of the first four games of the series despite Paul sitting out the first two. They appeared to have all the momentum to book a ticket to the Western Conference Finals. Alas, their ticket was taken, ripped up and spit back in their faces.
The Clippers' Collapse Against the Houston Rockets
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Game 5: James Harden put up 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists with flu-like symptoms while Dwight Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds of his own. (Harden should look at getting the flu before every playoff game after his performance this year). The Rockets held the lead for the entirety of the game in Houston and sent the series back to Los Angeles with a 124-103 win.
Game 6: This is the collapse within the collapse. The Clippers held a 3-2 lead heading back to their home court, still in control. They had a two-point advantage going into halftime and added some more cushion by extending it to 19 late in the third quarter. This is when the matchup became the Corey Brewer game. Brewer scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and Howard added 20 points and 21 rebounds while Houston outscored Los Angeles 51-20 to close out the game and give them a 119-107 victory.
Stunned, it seemed the game was never in doubt for the Clips. But some horrendous defense allowed Houston to get back in it. The fourth-quarter surge was with Harden on the bench for most of the fourth by the way. Houston completely stole momentum.
Game 7: The Clippers defensive woes continued as soon as they landed back in Texas. Harden exploded for 31 points and Trevor Ariza went 6-for-12 from downtown to finish with 22. The Rockets never trailed once, and the "Clutch City" mantra brought back from their championship runs in 1994 and 1995 rang true again 20 years later. Houston won 113-100 to rob the Clip of their first Conference Finals appearance in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Clippers did some reflecting.
"It's disappointing," Griffin said. "We were close, but close doesn't really count. Almost doesn't count. We were up 3-1 and didn't put them away. We can't look at anybody but ourselves."
"I love my team," then Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I love the fact that they wanted to win so bad that, in my opinion, we almost couldn't win. We have to fix that part. It requires great trust in each other. Our guys were trying to do it on their own."
Wanting to win so bad that you can't win? Shouldn't that be, and I'm just spitballing here, something the coach takes a look at? Doc has at least learned from his mistakes, though. He holds the title as the only coach in NBA history to blow multiple 3-1 series leads. The first was when he was the head coach of the Orlando Magic and they collapsed against the Detroit Pistons in 2003. The second was this one, and the third was when the Clippers blew up against the Denver Nuggets in 2020 NBA Bubble. He nearly did it again this year, too, when his Philadelphia 76ers almost collapsed in the first round against the Toronto Raptors. He's nothing if not consistent.
Anyway, the epic collapse shell-shocked the Clippers to a point that I would argue was the reason behind the "Lob City" era ending. How can you bounce back from blowing a 3-1 lead like this? It's not like the 2015 Rockets were juggernauts. Harden was still on the ascent, Howard was hurt half the year, Ariza was the second offensive option. The "Lob City" Clips did in fact end two seasons later, but they never got out of the first round in the subsequent seasons.
The main reason the Clippers lost is defense, of course. They had the 16th-rated defensive rating in the league at 106.14. Not great by any means, but in the final three games of the series, their estimated rating was 118.67. Ouch.
Who's to say how the Clippers would've fared had they advanced. The fact they didn't even make to the Conference Finals is baffling.
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