Clippers coach Doc Rivers is convinced his team has the right formula to win a championship, but there’s too often something missing.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Sometimes the Clippers look like the best team in the NBA and sometimes they look like the Clippers. There is something subtly wrong with this team. It is not a big problem like roster construction or selfish stars or lousy coaching, but it’s clear enough that you can see it, the way coach Doc Rivers did Sunday, when he turned to assistant Ty Lue and said, “We’ve lost our pace.”
They never got it back. For the second straight game, the Clippers blew a large second-half lead to the rising and confident Nuggets, and Game 6 was somehow more incredible than what happened in Game 5. Every team blows leads. What made this so bizarre is not that the Nuggets came back, or that they forced a Game 7, but that the run started in the third quarter and lasted all the way to the end of the game. The Clippers needed a tourniquet and handed the Nuggets a knife instead.
The Clippers led 68-49 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. They were outscored 62-30 in the final 22 minutes.
“I used all my timeouts just to get us to keep playing the way we played to get these leads,” Rivers said. “It was beautiful basketball, and then we stopped playing. We stopped moving the ball. We stopped attacking the defense.”
As Rivers said afterward, “We clearly have the right formula.” When the Clippers are good, they are so good. They are the deepest team in the West and have the highest ceiling of any team playing. If you were playing a pickup game with a billion dollars on the line and everybody on the planet wanted to play, Kawhi Leonard would be one of the top two picks. Paul George got out of his early-playoff funk and is fully engaged.
The Clippers do indeed have the right formula. They just stop using it sometimes. You would think, after blowing a lead in Game 5 and seeing the Lakers wrap up their series Saturday night, that the Clippers would have locked in and finished the job so the battle of L.A. could begin. But as Rivers said, “I thought our offense let us down.”
If this all seems disrespectful to the Nuggets, then Jamal Murray likes it that way. The Denver point guard said, “It’s nice to see everybody eat their words.” Murray got hurt Sunday. He said he still isn’t sure what the injury is, and fellow star Nikola Jokic said “even if he had a broken rib, he would continue for sure.” Murray smiled when he heard what Jokic said. He is a great young player, and like most great young players, he expects what others do not. In Murray’s telling, the way the Nuggets finished Games 5 and 6 is the way they should play all the time.
“I just think we’re a really good team and it shouldn’t even have gotten to this point,” he said.
It’s nice that he thinks that, and the Nuggets are a really good team. But the Clippers were built to win now, they are good enough to win now, and they can’t win now if they keep waiting to win later.
This is a weird environment in a strange season, but certain fundamentals still apply. George played well offensively in Game 6 – he scored 33 points – but he lapsed when his team did. At one point he tried one of those awkward just-trying-to-draw-contact jumpers, which can work, but there were 13 seconds left on the shot clock and he didn’t draw the contact. Rivers soon used one of his timeouts. He seemed annoyed.
Rivers did use one timeout when the Clippers were flat-footed defensively; he walked onto the court, twirling his hand, saying “Rotate. Rotate.” But the Clippers at least tried to defensively. George took a Gary Harris charge along the baseline. When the Clippers’ Lou Williams drove and had his shot blocked, all five Clippers ran back on defense and communicated like championship teams do.
The Clippers have a championship roster, loaded with talent and experience, but as Rivers pointed out, they don’t have much experience together. In that way, they are a lot like Rivers’s 2008 champion Celtics, who acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen the summer before they won the title.
But for various reasons – injuries, load management, pandemic – George and Leonard only played 38 regular-season games together. They seemed to click in those games, but that’s just not a lot of time. It might explain the lack of connectivity in the last two games. The Clippers can still win the championship. But they can’t win it playing like this.