Clippers still have next season: Five takeaways from Game 7 loss to Nuggets

The Buffalo Braves reached three consecutive conference semifinals from 1974-76, but never advanced. Two moves, a new name and 30 years later, the franchise known as the Clippers finally had a chance to take the next step in 2006. Instead, they lost in seven games to Phoenix.

Then “Lob City” arrived, but the conference-final breakthrough never did. There was a four-game, second-round sweep in 2012 by San Antonio, a six-game series loss in 2014 to Oklahoma City and a loss to Houston in seven games the following year in which the Clippers collapsed after taking a 3-1 series lead.

That history left Staples Center’s rafters bereft of banners on Clippers game nights, and the franchise as one of only three in the NBA to never advance to a conference final.

The current roster was built to change that.

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Kick-started by a 2018 trade of All-Star forward Blake Griffin, the Clippers turned the face of the franchise into numerous players and future draft picks. They in turn were dealt for more players and salary cap flexibility that facilitated last year’s trade for All-Star forward Paul George and signing of Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Finals most valuable player and the highest-profile free agent ever signed by the team.

Two stars who grew up in Los Angeles’ exurbs of Palmdale and Moreno Valley returned home amid fanfare last summer. Now, they exit their first season together as Clippers suffering the same postseason misery that has followed the franchise for 50 years.

The 104-89 loss in Game 7 to Denver in the Western Conference semifinal was the third consecutive in which the Clippers held a double-digit lead before losing.

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Five takeaways from the season-ending loss:

1. The details of Game 7 are grisly upon review. A look ahead is in order because the Clippers are guaranteed only one more season with Leonard and George. Both can opt out of their contracts and become free agents in 2021. The Clippers’ first season as a championship favorite ends bitterly, and now the team has just one year left to leave the impression that it can win the title they promised they would chase.

“It hurts, it hurts, but we move on,” George said. “You know, again, year one together, first run together, of course we wanted to win this. But we’ve been very optimistic about us being together and building something going down the road.”

2. Leonard entered Game 7 averaging 11.5 points in the second half of each game in the series. He scored two points after halftime of Game 7, making one of his 11 shots.

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George averaged 10.8 points per second half against Denver through six games. He scored just three points after halftime Tuesday, making one of his seven shots and failing a free throw. George and Leonard combined to miss all 11 fourth-quarter shots.

3. Players repeatedly said that lack of chemistry on the court was a factor in their early exit. The Clippers fielded a healthy roster 11 times during the regular season and eight more in the postseason. Starting center Ivica Zubac and backup guard Landry Shamet arrived several weeks late to the NBA restart after testing positive for the coronavirus. Three players left the bubble because of the deaths of loved ones. All were reasons cited — along with conditioning, from those absences and injuries — for why they bowed out against a Denver team whose core has played together for years.

“You’ve got a lot of parts,” reserve guard Lou Williams said. “You go from last year, we were the team that wasn’t expected to make the playoffs to going and being a championship-caliber team when you bring in two high-level guys. That’s an adjustment. [Montrezl Harrell] and I, we had to adjust our games.

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“I think everybody had to sacrifice and put themselves in a different position and that type of thing takes time, especially when you’re doing it for years at a time. For Kawhi, he just won a championship with a completely different group of guys, to come here. Paul was in a different situation. There was so many different moving parts. So just working out in the gym, it doesn’t happen. It takes time. So you know, we’ve got to deal with that. We’ve got to live with it and move on.”

4. George said afterward that “internally, we’ve always felt this is not a championship-or-bust year for us. You know, we can only get better the longer we stay together and the more we’re around each other.”

The definition of “bust” might change from person to person, but it has always been clear that this season wasn’t meant to be a learning experience but a title run. One month ago, on the eve of the playoffs, coach Doc Rivers said not winning a championship would be a disappointment. Asked about that sentiment that August day, George agreed.

“I mean, we want to win the championship,” he said. “That’s the reason we committed to be here. It’s as simple as that. We should have one goal and we have one goal, and that’s to win it.”

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5. The final three games came down to the fact that one team executed after halftime, and the other could not. Denver outscored the Clippers by 74 points combined after halftime in Games 5, 6 and 7.

“We were getting point-blank looks, but it didn’t go, you know, and [Denver] kept playing,” Rivers said. “The whole difference, they went through stretches like that, too, they just kept playing. I thought especially in the fourth quarter, I just thought we start missing shots and you can see us trusting less and less and less. I mean, listen, obviously I could have done something more. I always think it’s me no matter what. I don’t care what we had. I don’t look at this and try to figure it out, but you know, it’s very disappointing.”

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