Trailing Denver by 15 points with eight minutes to play in their season, the Los Angeles Clippers called a timeout. As players leaned in to hear the directions of their coach, Doc Rivers, guard Lou Williams buried his face in a towel, then spiked it to the floor.
It would only get worse.
By the end of their third consecutive collapse when leading by double digits, a run in which they forfeited a series 3-1 lead and added another disastrous chapter to their 50-year history of playoff misery, Clippers players stood on the bench, with thousand-yard stares, as the Nuggets dominated the closing minutes — and the final week — of this matchup.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the superstars whose additions 14 months ago were expected to bring the Clippers to unprecedented heights, checked out with 84 seconds remaining. When the final buzzer mercifully rang, they walked off in silence.
Denver's 104-89 victory Tuesday night makes it the first team in NBA history to win multiple series when trailing 3-1 and sends the Nuggets into the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers beginning Friday in the NBA bubble near Orlando, Florida.
All season, that matchup had been viewed as likely to be contested between the Clippers and Lakers — teams that share an arena, and championship ambitions this season, but never faced one another in the postseason.
Yet all season, there was an unanswered question about how they would get there: Could the Clippers blend their grit from the previous season with the talent of their current roster?
The answer, as seen throughout this series, was a resounding no.
The Clippers lost their final three games after leading by 16, 19 and 12 points, respectively.
In Game 7, they were outscored 60-33 in the second half. Leonard scored 14 points, George 10 and they were outplayed by the Nuggets' Jamal Murray, who had 40 points, and Nikola Jokic, who had 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists.
With the loss, the Clippers retain membership in an ignominious club, joining Charlotte and New Orleans as the only NBA franchises yet to reach a conference finals.
As the Buffalo Braves, the franchise reached three consecutive conference semifinals from 1974-76. Two moves and a new name later, the Clippers returned in 2006 but lost in seven games to Phoenix. Lob City arrived, but the breakthrough never did. There was a four-game sweep in 2012 by San Antonio, a six-game loss in 2014 to Oklahoma City and a seven-game loss to Houston the following year in which the Clippers collapsed after taking a 3-1 lead.
That history left Staples Center's rafters bereft of banners on Clippers game nights. The current roster was built to change that. Kick-started by a 2018 trade of Blake Griffin, the Clippers turned the franchise's face into numerous players and future draft picks that were, in turn, dealt for more pieces and salary cap flexibility that facilitated last year's trade for George and signing of Leonard, a two-time Finals most valuable player and the highest-profile free agent ever signed by the team. Stars who grew up in Los Angeles' exurbs of Palmdale and Moreno Valley returned home amid fanfare.
Entering his 14th Game 7 as a coach, experience had taught Rivers the "whole thing" about high-stakes games was making players feel free. Standing in the middle of his locker room before tipoff, he reiterated the message.
On many moments to start, they looked it. Double teams on Jokic held the 7-footer to four shots in the first half. The bench, the best offensively during the regular season but missing in action for most of the series, made its first seven shots, with Williams finding a cutting Montrezl Harrell for baskets like it was January.
Yet the Clippers weren't free from all their flaws.
Rivers stressed that his guards couldn't get in foul trouble, yet George was called for three in the first half, along with center Ivica Zubac. Opportunities for easy baskets dried up — Denver's 10 first-half turnovers yielded only nine points. Harrell's offensive energy didn't translate defensively.
Deja vu hit hardest, however, when a double-digit lead slipped away for a third consecutive game. This time, their 12-point lead four minutes before halftime was unwound within seven minutes. After making five of its first six three-pointers of the second half, Denver led by eight, just 14 minutes from the conference finals.
There was no coming back.
JaMychal Green drove into the paint with 10 minutes to play but bounced a dunk off the back of the rim. The Clippers recovered the rebound, then threw the ball out of bounds. Their shoulders slumped. Even when Jokic, arguably the best player all series, sat for a fourth-quarter rest, the Clippers couldn't make a dent in the lead.
The Clippers didn't score their first field goal of the quarter until fewer than five minutes remained. By that time, their season, and opportunity to rewrite Clippers history, was done.
(Greif reported from Los Angeles.)
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