LOS ANGELES -- The season wasn't supposed to end like this for the Los Angeles Clippers.
They weren't supposed to be flying home to Los Angeles from Houston on Sunday to begin their offseason. Their bags were packed for six days and their hotel was booked in San Francisco for what should have been the start of their Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.
The problem is, the Clippers played the last three games of their season as if they were looking forward to a series they would never get to play in.
Of all the dubious lists the Clippers franchise finds itself on in NBA history, perhaps none is as bad and as heartbreaking as the one they joined on Sunday when they became just the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead in a best-of-seven series.
The Clippers' 113-100 loss to the Houston Rockets culminated an embarrassing three-game losing streak to finish out a season seemingly destined for the franchise's first-ever conference finals berth. After blowing out the Rockets by 16, 25 and 33 points and holding a 19-point lead late in Game 6 to close out the series on their home court, the Clippers crumbled. Suddenly, inexplicably and quite miraculously really, they reverted back to being, well, the Clippers.
Before the game, there was still a quiet confidence in the team's locker room that they would somehow hit the brakes on their historic slide before it ended their season. If they could just beat the Rockets in Game 7, a team they had blown out in Game 1 without Chris Paul and beaten by a combined 58 points in back-to-back games in Los Angeles, no one would ever remember their extraordinary collapse in Game 6.
Instead, it now becomes the defining disappointment for a franchise that has been defined by disappointments. The tired, old jokes about Clippers curses and jinxes that had picked up dust and cobwebs in recent years were restored to their former luster and are now as relevant as they were before the team's current unprecedented run of four straight postseason appearances.
The loss was a particularly hard pill to swallow for Paul, who played in his 65th postseason game without reaching the conference finals. Only two players in NBA history, Thurl Bailey (69) and Kiki Vandeweghe (68), have played in more postseason games without getting past the second round. That's a list Paul wishes he wasn't on but will likely top if he plays in the postseason next year.
After blowing a 2-0 series lead in the second round as 23-year-old in New Orleans and squandering a 3-1 series lead as a 30-year-old in Los Angeles, Paul was tired of talking about growing and falling just short of the next step in his career again.
"So close. I don't even know what that means anymore," Paul said. "I don't know. Like Ricky Bobby says, 'If you're not first, you're last.' Getting close ain't good enough ... It's a long summer and it's getting old to tell you the truth. I don't know. I got to get better. I'll tell you that much it starts with me.
"I'm sorry, but I don't really see growth in a loss. It's a long time until you get to the playoffs again."
After the game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers stood outside the team's locker room and huddled with his assistant coaches before walking in alongside Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. Rivers and Ballmer talk regularly. Ballmer wants to pick Rivers' brain about basketball and Rivers wants to pick Ballmer's brain about pretty much everything else.
He asked Ballmer to say a couple of words to the team and after Ballmer dropped a few expletives to say how tough this situation was but also how proud he was of the team, Rivers became emotional as he addressed his players.
Of the 15 players on the roster only Glen "Big Baby" Davis knew what it was like to win a championship after winning one in 2008 with Rivers in Boston. As he looked into their eyes, Rivers knew the exact heartbreak they were feeling. In fact, he became the only coach in NBA history to lose a seven-game series twice -- Rivers was coaching Orlando when the Magic lost a 3-1 series lead in 2003.
"I told them I was a player for 13 years, and I had my heart broken for 13 straight years," Rivers said. "I told them, every night I prayed, every single night, my only goal was to win a world championship. Every year, I'd give my heart completely to the team, and every year, it got completely broken. I told them it was worth it. I told them it's so worth it to buy in and give yourself to a team. And this is part of sports. Only one winner. If we didn't win this round or the next, it wouldn't have mattered.
"But it's worth giving yourself to the team. It's worth getting your heart broken and taking all the criticism. It should excite you. It does to me. I told them that. I'm broken up right now, but in my mind, I'm already thinking about next year. You just have to get back on. That's going to be us, and that's what we're going to do."
It was easy to think about the Clippers' cursed past after their dramatic collapse. Rivers knows about the curse all too well, having played for the Clippers before returning as the coach two years ago and also being in Boston when the Red Sox finally reversed their curse.
"I saw it when I was in Boston and they had leads, and you were like, ‘Holy goodness, we're going to give this up.' That's how I felt after the game," Rivers said. "Trust me. I have a lot of friends there, and I got calls from a lot of people, including some of their managers. The things they said is the same thing I said, you just get back on it. You really do. It's hard. We're going to break this. It's my goal. It's why I came here. I thought we had it. I thought we had it last year. We just have to keep at the fire. That's it."
The meaning of the Clippers' curse has changed since Blake Griffin was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 and missed his entire rookie season after breaking his left kneecap.
"The Clipper curse, when I first got here was No. 1 picks getting hurt, not working out, their draft picks not working out, not making the playoffs, not having winning seasons," Griffin said. "No one talked about not getting past the second round. Not a single soul talked about that, but now, that's what everybody talks about. Just like the last one, we're going to bust through this one."
The Clippers expected to bust through it this season. But as they enter another long offseason filled with more questions than answers, they realize how close they were this season to getting past the second round and how much their collapse will stay with them until they break through.
"What happened in Game 6," Rivers said, "I'll think about it for a long time and so will our players."