There are occasions in sports when you’re watching a story unfold, and it just seems like destiny is directing it.
I remember thinking this during the 2011 Finals when Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks met the star-studded Miami Heat. Watching that series, it was natural to dwell upon how this was Dirk’s defining moment. He’d been a stud for years and had even been to the Finals, but he still didn’t have a ring. This was his chance to place an exclamation point on his career.
As they found a way to win that series, it seemed like destiny guided the path. Dirk finally reached the basketball pinnacle and solidified his legacy. He even did this emphatically by beating LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. As the final buzzer sounded in the series-clinching victory, Nowitzki just walked off the floor and headed towards the locker room. It has to rank as one of the most absurd championship celebrations (or lack thereof) of all-time because his demeanor looked as if they lost.
But this captures the magnitude behind what happened. Dirk’s defining moment had came and he’d conquered, and he was so overwhelmed with emotion that he had no emotion. It was that defining for him.
I was beginning to have that same feeling about Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers during this year’s playoffs. They’ve been a solid threat for numerous years, but they’ve only attained limited success in the postseason with no advancement past the second round. Their primary worth has been filling YouTube with more Lob City dunks. It’s been easy to question if they have much substance underneath all the flash.
Then the playoffs started and it appeared that the script had Clipper destiny written all over it. The Clips dethroned the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a grueling seven-game series. This included winning Game 6 on San Antonio’s home floor and was then capped off by a Paul game-winner in Game 7. This series was so thrilling that it’s too bad it was just the first round:
They’d cleared the first hurdle, and the plot thickened from there. With Paul sidelined by injury to begin their next series against the Houston Rockets, the Clips found a way to steal Game 1 in Houston with Blake Griffin compiling a beastly 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. Griffin exclaimed that his value extends far beyond highlight reel dunks, as his effort here showcased seemingly everything.
The Rockets won Game 2, but then Paul returned and the Clippers throttled Houston for two straight games in Los Angeles to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. In Game 3, coach Doc Rivers’s son Austin caught fire and netted 25 points, and it just appeared that everything was going right for them. This was their year. Even the coach’s son was making everything. It was becoming so special that it was cute.
Plus, the West playoffs didn’t feature Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that had ousted them in the playoffs the year before. If they could finish off Houston, they were looking at a rematch from the previous playoffs with the Golden State Warriors. The Clips defeated them in seven games a year earlier. The series with the Warriors would be a serious challenge, but it was conceivable to believe they could not only win that but also the NBA title (for the record, I’m fully confident they would’ve given Golden State a better series than Houston).
No matter what, you at least thought they’d get to the West Finals and have a chance against Golden State. You knew CP3 would at least put to rest the haunting reality of never getting past the second round. All of this seemed certain.
And then the unthinkable happened. The script of destiny was suddenly crumbled up and thrown away. They went on to lose three straight games to a Rockets team that had previously looked defeated.
The truly defining moment came in Game 6, which featured a combination of debacle and misfortune. Playing at home, they possessed a 19-point lead in the second half. They had the series in hand.
A disastrous fourth quarter ensued with Houston outscoring Los Angeles 40-15. The debacle here is the fact that the Clippers’ potent offense was limited to just 15 fourth-quarter points in their most important minutes of the season. This can’t be overlooked, nor can the fact that they also lost Games 5 and 7. But there’s more to the story than the Clippers crumbling. For a whole quarter, they were dealt horrendous luck.
The misfortune is highlighted by who sparked Houston’s fourth-quarter surge in Game 6, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer. They combined for a whopping 29 points in the final frame. Furthermore, MVP-runner up James Harden spent the majority of the final quarter on the bench.
We just have to highlight the irony here. Smith has for years been that guy who shoots way more threes than he should. With a 28.5 percent career three-point percentage, it’s clear his strengths are elsewhere, but he’s never understood this. With the season on the line in the fourth quarter, he’s simply not the guy you want with the ball. You can expect poor shot selection with little efficiency as well as an ill-advised turnover or two.
And he somehow splashed three trey balls in the most pivotal moments of the season. It’s like all those clanks throughout his career proved justified by what he did in Game 6. You would’ve never seen this coming, and it would’ve been laughable to predict this. But the laughable actually happened.
And the bad luck for the Clippers didn’t stop there. Brewer, who boasts a 10.2 career scoring average, poured in 15 during the final quarter and simply played out of his mind. He attacked the rim with ferocity and banged home two threes. Brewer’s performance begged the question, “Where has this been your whole career?”
Here’s what’s especially crazy about Smith and Brewer dominating like this: It’s been over two months since then and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how this happened. It almost seemed that destiny had chosen the Clippers and then changed its mind heading into the fourth quarter, instead choosing two unlikely heroes to dash L.A.’s dreams. It’s like destiny tantalized the Clippers with a peek at basketball glory, and then took it away and laughed in their face. There was even one Brewer trey in which DeAndre Jordan saved the ball from going out of bounds and the ball ended up in Brewer’s hands for a wide-open look. This symbolized the depth of the misfortune:
The bottom line is that for the Clips to have that bad of a quarter while guys like Smith and Brewer have that good of a quarter is more than just flukey. It’s absolutely sickening for Clippers fans, and absolutely hilarious for everybody else. Seriously, what are the chances of this happening again, especially with arguably the game’s most prolific offensive weapon in Harden on the bench? It’s unfathomable. Sadly, an offensive collapse plus pure bad luck became a defining moment for the Clippers, during a playoffs in which the outlook for them appeared so promising. Now we just sit and wonder if they can recoup.
And in the weeks since, the irony has grown. The Clips recently signed Smith, which has some positives because of his versatility. However, I question this for one reason: Smith’s face in the locker room serves as a continual reminder of what happened. It just makes it harder to recover. Plus, it’s inevitable that Smith will have games in which he chucks up numerous bricks from three and the whole team will be wondering where that was last year during Game 6. Nobody will say anything, but everybody will be thinking it. Actually, CP3 might say something.
Moving forward, the Clips shouldn’t be written off. The return of DeAndre after his soap opera keeps them in the Western Conference hunt. And speaking of his reunion, there was something about all that drama that was emblematic of everything about the Clippers. There was so much uproar about his “change of heart.” Twitter was blowing up like one of his posterizing dunks. Yet, once again, the NBA universe went nuts about the Clippers and it had nothing to do with winning. It was just another captivating moment. I’ve realized the Clippers are a fantastic Twitter team, but is that a good thing?
With DeAndre back in the mix and the additions of Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Smith, the Clips still have a roster that can contend. But I’m skeptical. None of their newcomers are so significant that they make them convincingly better. This team still has questions, especially defensively, where their lack of perimeter defenders is concerning in a league that requires them. Teams that are able to beat LeBron or Durant have those players. Think Kawhi Leonard or Andre Iguodala.
There are also doubts because two Western Conference foes got a ton better. Oklahoma City improved by merely regaining a healthy Durant, and San Antonio nabbed LaMarcus Aldridge and there’s no way you’re telling me that the Clips are beating that team now. And oh yeah, the champion Warriors are back after a historically elite season. I currently rank the Clippers fourth in the West heading into 2015-16 (those pesky Rockets are right there as well).
Because of these factors, I’m stuck looking at what happened to the Clippers this past season and realizing it most likely was this group’s defining season. The opportunity was right there. The table was set perfectly. It seemed like destiny was on their side, and it doesn’t happen regularly that destiny is on your side. You have to seize the moment when it comes. They didn’t. Or maybe their destiny was stolen from them by a bizarre fourth quarter filled with unfortunate fate.
As a result, the Clips are still that flashy team that has plenty of YouTube highlights but no banners. Barring some unforeseen shot at destiny again, this could be the characterization that accompanies them for years.
And it’ll all point back to 2014-15 as the season they’ll never forget.