PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Los Angeles Clippers had a chance on Saturday night to do something they had never done in franchise history. It seems like over the past five seasons they’ve made a habit of taking down these kinds of pesky records one by one, but this one will likely stand for at least another year.
The Clippers have never won the first three games of a playoff series in their star-crossed history. The only other active NBA franchises that have never began a playoff series with three consecutive wins are the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors. That’s obviously not the kind of company you want to keep when talking about the postseason, but it’s not surprising given the Clippers’ playoff history prior to 2012.
Yes, the Clippers still lead their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers 2-1 heading into Monday’s Game 4 at the Moda Center, but there were enough moments of déjà vu late in Saturday’s 96-88 loss to make you wonder whether this series will end up being another long, grueling grind for the Clippers.
Coming into this postseason, five of the Clippers’ past eight playoff series had gone seven games, while two had lasted six games. The Clippers’ core group of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan has won three playoffs series together and each one went to Game 7. After beating the Blazers by at least 20 points in the first two games of this series and with the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder looking at possibly quick four- to five-game series, the Clippers talked about taking care of business when they had the opportunity coming into Saturday's Game 3.
“You never say that you've been through everything, but we have been through a lot,” Griffin said after Game 2. “The one thing that I think we should use is, we've lost several different ways. We've lost tough series; we've lost when we've been up and felt like we should have won. We've won tough series. The one thing: I don't think I've ever won a series that wasn't a Game 7, so that's kind of the next step is closing out a series without enduring too much energy and without taking it to seven games; taking care of business when you do have a lead like this.”
The Clippers had the chance to take a commanding 3-0 series lead and put themselves in position to move on to the second round on Monday. They held a four-point lead, 85-81, with 3:35 left in the game before the Blazers went on a 15-1 run to put the game away. With a chance to put a stranglehold on the opposition and the series, the Clippers did what they have done several times in the past: They wilted under the pressure and gave their opponent new life.
“We really don’t want to go into these long playoff series,” J.J. Redick said after the defeat on Saturday. “Anything can happen, as it showed last year against Houston. When you have a team down, and we had a four-point lead against a team we had 2-0 -- we had a great opportunity to go up 3-0, and on Monday, we’ll have an opportunity to go up 3-1.”
The importance of closing out a series when you have a chance might seem obvious, but the Clippers have learned the hard way that they can’t take a series lead for granted. They blew a 2-0 series lead to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013, losing four straight. And last season, they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets after winning back-to-back games in blowout fashion, then losing a Game 6 clincher at home after holding a 19-point lead in the second half.
There was an intensity with the Clippers in the first two blowout wins over Portland that seemed to indicate they knew the importance of coming out and being the aggressors in the playoffs, but that intensity simply was missing in Game 3.
“You just have to bring more energy,” Griffin said after the game. “They beat us in almost every facet of the game. They outhustled us, they were better on the glass, they got the 50-50 balls. They had more energy. They flew around. They executed their game plan. You could tell they wanted to go early. They were tougher than us. They were more aggressive. They were tougher.
"They pushed, and we didn’t really push back. You have to be the team that initiates it. You can’t be the team that responds to it. They did everything, I felt like, they wanted to do.”
The Clippers had scored 100 or more points in each of their last 13 postseason games coming into Saturday’s game, which had been the longest current streak of that kind for any NBA team, but they couldn’t even break 90 against Portland. They hit a season low 16.7 percent from 3-point range (3 of 18) while shooting 56.5 percent from the free throw line. It was the kind of performance you’d expect from a team going through the motions during the regular season, not one from a squad looking to avenge previous mistakes made this time of year.
“I think some of it was us just not doing things as hard as we did in the first two games,” Redick said. “We did play hard, but overall I think we can do a lot of things better. Defensively, we couldn’t really muster a stop, and when we did get a first stop, we couldn’t get the second. The rebounds and the second-chance points, we didn’t take those away.”
Paul shook his head when asked about the importance of Game 4. In his mind, it’s a must-win game for a team that wants to go back to Los Angeles with a 3-1 series lead, not a series tied at 2-2.
“Game 4 is a big game for us,” Paul said. “This game was too, but we have to let this one go. We really need to get Game 4.”