No matter how you want to frame it, luck, once again, wasn't on the Clippers' side during the postseason.
The Clippers have advanced to the playoffs the past five seasons -- a record run for a franchise that had previously finished better than .500 in consecutive seasons only once, and that was back when they were the Buffalo Braves from 1973 to 1976. But despite becoming a perennial playoff team, they have yet to make it out of the second round, and for the second time during this span, they failed to make it out of the first round Friday.
This season wasn't supposed to end in April for the Clippers. Not after they took a 2-0 series lead on the Portland Trail Blazers, winning both games by at least 20 points. They looked like a lock to advance to the second round to play a Golden State Warriors team that probably will be without Stephen Curry for at least the first four games of the second round because of a Grade 1 MCL sprain in his right knee.
For a moment, it looked as if everything was lining up just right for the Clippers to do what they had never done before and advance to their first conference finals. But just as soon as a glimmer of light peaked through the slight crack in the door, it was quickly shut in their faces Monday night during the worst 45-minute stretch in franchise history. First, Chris Paul fractured his right hand, then Blake Griffin injured his left quadriceps. Both were ruled out for the rest of the postseason, which for the Clippers lasted only two games and four days after the injuries.
The shorthanded Clippers didn't go down Friday night without a fight and it looked as if Austin Rivers had been through a 12-round battle as he walked out of the locker room after the game. An inadvertent elbow to his left eye from Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu in the first quarter left him bloodied and on the floor as trainers tended to him. He came back in the second quarter, having receiving four stitches on top of his left eye and seven stitches below his eye, and scored 21 points.
The Clippers held a two-point lead to start the fourth quarter and tied it with 15 seconds left, but Rivers' return, Jamal Crawford's 32 points and the gutsy play of the rest of the team simply wasn't enough. Three Mason Plumlee free throws in the final seconds gave Portland a 106-103 win to end the Clippers' season earlier than they had expected once again.
It was another dramatic and heartbreaking close to a season for the Clippers. They have now squandered a 2-0 first-round series lead by losing four straight games twice, and last season blew a 3-1 second-round series lead by losing three straight games. No team in NBA history has ever blown a two-game series lead three times in four years. The last team to do it in consecutive seasons was the Phoenix Suns in 1994 and 1995.
Teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series are 258-16, and teams that go up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series are 222-9. As good as the Clippers have been recently, they continue to find themselves on the wrong side of history and fate this time of year.
Of course, the way the Clippers' season ended Friday, with Paul and Griffin watching the final game of the season back home in Los Angeles while recovering from surgeries, made the result more understandable. But it doesn't change the end result.
Paul has now been on three of the last four teams to blow a 2-0 series lead, and no player in NBA history has played in more postseason games without getting past the second round than he has. Doc Rivers also becomes only the second coach in NBA history to have his team blow three best-of-seven series when leading either 2-0 or 3-1.
So where do the Clippers go from here? They are the only team other than the San Antonio Spurs to win at least 50 games over the past four seasons, but they have nothing to show for it except for two Pacific Division banners that hang in their training facility along with a handful of game balls from some memorable wins. Even the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets have found a way to sneak into the conference finals during that time.
Paul, Griffin and Jordan are all under contract for next season, but Paul and Griffin probably will opt out of the final year of their deals and become free agents in the summer of 2017. Jordan can be a free agent the following summer (2018).
Looking at the rest of the roster, Redick will be a free agent after next season; Crawford, Jeff Green and Luc Mbah a Moute will be free agents this summer, and Austin Rivers, Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson probably will opt out of their deals and become free agents as well.
Paul Pierce, 38, signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Clippers last year, but said after the game he's "50-50" on whether he will retire following the worst season of his professional career. Pablo Prigioni, who turns 39 next month, probably will retire after also having his worst season.
In short, the Clippers are a team in flux that has hit a ceiling. It's a ceiling they have hit five times now, but Doc Rivers seems content with returning as much of the current roster as possible next season, hoping for a different result and that the sixth time will be the charm.
"I like our team," he said after the game. "Our bench was fantastic this year. The problem is we have a lot of free agents on our team and I think a lot of them are going to be attractive, and so we have to fight to keep our own first and then try to build from that point. We're going to have a difficult time. It's going to be tough."