LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Even before his team lost its lead to the Denver Nuggets on Sunday afternoon, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers turned to Tyronn Lue, one of his assistants, and told him that he sensed trouble. His players had slowed their pace on offense. It was obvious. But once that pace was gone, it was gone for good.
“Listen, when you decide to be a coach, it’s not going to be roses every day,” Rivers said. “So we clearly have the right formula as far as how we’re playing, and then we keep losing it.”
Expectations are different for the Clippers this season. Far removed from their laughingstock years, they have championship aspirations. They might even be favorites — or at least they were. But for a franchise that has never advanced to a conference finals, the Clippers are finding it increasingly difficult to separate themselves from their past.
Presented with two opportunities to close out the Nuggets in the conference semifinals, the Clippers have now blown both. On Friday, they wasted a 16-point lead in a Game 5 loss. On Sunday, they disintegrated again as the Nuggets erased a 19-point deficit in a 111-98 win, evening the best-of-seven series at three games apiece. Game 7 is Tuesday night.
Taken as a whole, it has been a cringeworthy stretch of basketball for the Clippers, worsened by the fact that the Lakers — who share the Staples Center arena with them in Los Angeles — are awaiting the winner in the conference finals. The Lakers will be well rested by Game 1 on Friday night. The Clippers just hope to still be playing by then.
“If you get through this, it will definitely serve you well,” Rivers said. “There’s no doubt about that. Because when you go through things like this and adversity and you come out of it the other end, on the right end of it, it absolutely makes you a better team.”
This is not the same Clippers team that, in 2015, blew a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals, losing in seven games. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the leaders of that group, are long gone. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who were brought in at no small cost last offseason to push a playoff-ready team over the top, have nothing to do with any of the franchise’s unfortunate history, of course. But perhaps the psychic wounds linger, and the reminders of past flameouts have been amplified in recent days.
“It’s pressure every game,” Leonard said. “Obviously, nobody wants to go home. But just got to go out there, play your game and live with the results.”
The Nuggets are a problem. They seem entirely unfazed by dire circumstances. In the first round, they trailed the Utah Jazz, 3-1, in their best-of-seven series before coming all the way back behind the tag-team brilliance of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Now, against the Clippers, the Nuggets are trying to do it again.
No player in the series has been more fearsome than Jokic, who has averaged 25.8 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field. On Sunday, the Nuggets outscored the Clippers by 62-30 over the game’s final 22 minutes. Jokic finished with 34 points.
“Give them credit,” Rivers said of the Nuggets. “They’re playing hard. We’re playing the third-best team in the West, and they’re good, they’re relentless, resilient. But what we’ve done to get the leads has worked continuously, and then we stop doing it.”
Specifically, he said, the Clippers stopped moving the ball. And as their lead washed away in the fourth quarter, Rivers searched for solutions. He even summoned Reggie Jackson, a reserve who had played sparingly in the series, off the bench. “We needed someone to make a shot,” Rivers said. (Jackson did not attempt one in 59 seconds of playing time.)
In the Clippers’ 50 years of existence, they have made 15 trips to the playoffs and eight appearances in the conference semifinals, dating to their days as the Buffalo Braves. But that is as far as they have ever gone.
The Clippers still hope that they can push through that barrier with one more win, but they have endured their share of obstacles. They have seldom seemed whole since the start of the season — so many months ago. George, for example, missed the team’s first 11 games after offseason shoulder surgery, then Leonard was sidelined with a knee contusion after George finally joined the starting lineup.
The season restart inside the bubble at Walt Disney World has presented its own challenges. George has spoken about his struggles acclimating to life in the bubble. Montrezl Harrell, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award winner, was gone for a month as he grieved the death of his grandmother, and he has labored to find his form in the playoffs. Patrick Beverley, who fouled out in less than 18 minutes Sunday, has been slowed by a calf injury. And Lou Williams has been wildly inconsistent, shooting 23.4% from 3-point range through the first two rounds.
For much of the season, the Clippers expressed confidence — through all the injuries and absences, through all the growing pains and ups and downs — that they would be able to assemble the pieces when it mattered most. But abundant talent does not always translate into cohesive play, and the dress rehearsals are over.
“They know they have an opportunity,” Rivers said. “They want to win worse than everybody.”