If you didn’t grow up around L.A., you can’t truly understand.
The Los Angeles Clippers were synonymous with losing. They made the playoffs just four times in their first 33 seasons after relocating from Buffalo to Southern California. Sub-.200 winning percentages became a regularity. Blowing seemingly insurmountable leads became expected. Players like Matt Fish, Pooh Richardson and Keith Closs became punchlines. If you asked an L.A. basketball fan whether they rooted for the Lakers or the Clippers, there was only one appropriate response: uncontrollable laughter.
Even when the franchise appeared to have turned the corner with the addition of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and JJ Redick, injuries, bad luck — the so-called Clipper Curse, if you will — served as an impenetrable, invisible barrier preventing the team from advancing past the second round.
Last postseason’s unfathomable collapse in which they blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the bubble was the predictable extension of the Clippers’ woes, and the inevitability of failure only grew more powerful when it was announced that Kawhi Leonard would miss Games 5 and 6 against the Utah Jazz due to a potentially season-ending knee injury.
But with Friday’s improbable, almost impossible 131-119 Game 6 comeback victory over the Utah Jazz, the 50-year buildup of angst, helplessness and desperation came crumbling down to the Staples Center floor. For the first time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers are going to the Western Conference finals.
The curse is broken.
It’s only fitting that the win came in front of a capacity crowd on the first night since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic that such numbers were permitted.
“This was my first time experiencing a crowd like this, you know, since I’ve been a Clipper,” said Paul George, a Southern California native who put up 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the biggest win in franchise history.
“Just the whole night was special, to be able to be in this arena and to feel that playoff atmosphere in front of my hometown, my friends, my family. So many important people in my life are in this building, and so it was just a special night, a special night. You felt it — the cheers, the excitement. You felt the monkey off of the Clippers’ back in terms of getting out of the second round.”
Over the course of 50 years, that monkey on the Clippers’ collective back had grown larger than King Kong.
This being the Clippers, however, there’s no way things could have gone according to plan. They fell down 0-2 in each of their first two playoff series. They entered Games 5 and 6 without their best player — the former Finals MVP who chose L.A. to change the fortunes of the league’s most ill-fated franchise. They fell behind by 25 points in the second half of Game 6 against the Jazz, and were led to victory by a career-high 39 points and seven 3-pointers from Terance Mann — the 48th pick in the 2019 draft who’d scored a total of 25 points in the first five games of the series — while receiving big shot after big shot from Reggie Jackson, who signed for the minimum in December after failing to get a more lucrative offer from any of the other 29 teams in the league.
Patrick Beverley, the longest-tenured Clipper on the roster, had fallen completely out of the rotation in the first round against Dallas, only to sink three gigantic 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help eliminate the Jazz.
“Special. Special. Special,” said Beverley, who’s in his fourth season with the Clippers. “Celebrating just to get in the playoffs, seeing a lot of people come and go, a lot of friends, and to be with an organization like this, to finish a game like this, to make history, is special, man. Because I, you know, blood, sweat and tears into this s—, injuries, friends getting traded, ups and downs of basketball — to be the last man standing and kind of write history is special, man, very special.”
We can talk Xs and Os all we want — how coach Tyronn Lue revamped his rotation on the fly, how the Clippers transformed three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert into a liability for Utah, how they changed up their defensive schemes against All-Star Donovan Mitchell. But sometimes as a fan of any sport, you have to forget all that and just appreciate the determination, grit, skill and enthusiasm from a team that had every reason to pack it in and save up for Game 7.
There’s a scene from the 1990s cult classic film, “Gattaca,” in which Vincent, played by Ethan Hawke, is miraculously beating his genetically superior younger brother, Anton, in a nighttime swimming race deep into the steaming ocean. As Anton fears he and his brother have gone too far and won’t be able to make it back to shore, he shouts to his brother, “How are you doing this, Vincent?”
“You wanna know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton,” Vincent replies. “I never saved anything for the swim back.”
That was the Clippers on Friday night, pushing the franchise past its previous limits with no concern for the consequences. We’ve talked about Paul George putting the ghosts of previous playoff failures behind him. We’ve talked about the newfound toughness and resilience that this iteration of the Clippers has demonstrated while embracing an underdog mentality. We’ve talked about how the front office’s roster-building around its superstars — adding pieces like Mann, Jackson, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris — has led to postseason success.
But ultimately to make history, you can’t save anything for the swim back. That’s exactly the approach the Clippers have taken, and they’ll continue swimming into uncharted waters as they prepare for their first conference finals game on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns.
“Our team, I just tell you, they just don’t quit. They keep fighting and competing, and I think our fans see that this year,” Lue said after the Game 6 win. “We never gave in, never pointed a finger. Never pointed the blame on someone else. We looked in the mirror and we owned it and moved on. It was a total team effort all season long, all playoffs long — different rotations, starters not playing, starters playing … It’s a total team effort and we are all trying to win, and our team is willing to do whatever it takes to win.”