LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers have been many things during their star-crossed history, but they have never been the best team in the NBA.
They've been the worst team. They've been a middling team. They've been a team on the rise. They've been a playoff team. They've even been a championship-contending team in recent years. But they've never been the favorites to win it all.
That is, until now.
After becoming the first team to claim three wins in the conference semifinals on Sunday with a 128-95 win over the Houston Rockets, the Clippers are not only one win away from reaching their first-ever conference finals, but they have catapulted themselves into the status of championship favorites in some circles for the first time ever.
According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Clippers currently have the best chance to win the championship at 40.7 percent. Next on the list is the Golden State Warriors at 23.6 percent to win it all. The Warriors currently find themselves down 2-1 in their semifinal series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Most sports books still have the Warriors as favorites to win the championship, but the Clippers aren’t far behind them now at 4-to-1 odds, and they would supplant them on Monday if Memphis took a 3-1 series lead. The Clippers were given 18-to-1 odds at the start of the postseason, seventh in the league, and dipped as low as 28-to-1 after falling behind 3-2 in their first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs.
But the Clippers found themselves as they faced elimination against the Spurs. Talk to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and they view that series as more of a graduation after four years of being together than simply a first-round series win. They learned what it took to comeback from being down 2-1 and 3-2 in a series and having to win must-win games on the road. They learned how to close out a defending champion in a classic Game 7 and in the process how to trust each other in a way they never had before.
“It gives you a sense of being battle-tested,” Blake Griffin said. “When you play a team like the Spurs in the first round and come out like that, it kind of gives you that feeling of accomplishment to the point of being down 2-1 early on the road, winning two games at their place. It just kind of gives you confidence as a team, but really the whole season has led up to this point. I think we realize as a team what we're capable of when we play the right way. It's just a matter of coming out and playing the right way.”
The Clippers aren’t just playing the right way now. They’re playing like a dominant team on a mission to do something special this season. After splitting the first two games of their semifinals series at Houston without Paul, they have defeated the Rockets by 33 and 25 points respectively in Los Angeles, representing two of their three largest margins of victory in postseason history. They also became the first team since the 2001 Lakers to win consecutive playoff games in a series by at least 25 points.
They’re playing with the kind of confidence and swagger Rivers has tried to instill in them from the moment he came on board last season. Before every game, he tells them they are the best team in the NBA. Before his first meeting with the team last season he mapped out a championship parade route and told them to envision themselves taking that drive in June. Before this season he gathered them together in a suite when the Los Angeles Kings raised their Stanley Cup championship banner and told them to envision themselves raising their own banner.
“I think we can finally see what he was talking about,” said Glen Davis, the only player on the Clippers roster who has won a championship. “Doc has always been preaching about the way we need to play in order to win a championship, and I think we can finally see it. I think beating San Antonio woke us up. I think the Spurs woke up this sense of urgency we’ve always had inside of us, and now it’s paying off against the rest of these teams.”
Davis won a championship and played in two NBA Finals in Boston with Rivers as his coach. As much as Rivers and Davis can talk about playing like a champion, it wasn’t until the Clippers dethroned a champion that they truly realized what it takes to become one.
“You see glimpses now,” Davis said. “Everyone is starting to believe now, and when everyone starts to believe, they start to do whatever they need to do for the team, and that’s what it’s all about -- sacrificing yourself for the next guy -- and I think that San Antonio series opened our eyes to the way we’re supposed to play.”
While most of the headlines in this series have revolved around Hack-a-Howard and Hack-a-Jordan, intentional fouling is doing nothing more than delaying the inevitable for Houston. The Rockets look as lost against the Clippers as the Clippers looked against the Spurs when they met in the playoffs three years ago. It didn’t look like they were playing the same game at times, which has often been the case in this series as the Clippers have led in the second half of every game by at least 13 points.
“It's an intangible thing,” Rivers said. “You've got to believe. You really do. And I think our guys do. They've done it all year. They really have. But it's just that I think right now, honestly, they just have great focus. They're not thinking about it, a lot of stuff, but doing their jobs and trying to win the game. There's no stuff. It's just they're just really focused right now, and we've got to keep them that way.”
Before playing the Spurs in the first round, the Clippers were given a sheet of paper with the names of all the writers and analysts who picked them to lose. After the series was over, Rivers told his team to keep that chip on their shoulder moving forward. They may be the favorites in some circles now, but they still feel like the underdogs.
“After the [Spurs] series my dad said, ‘You know what? When you all play Houston, they’re still not going to pick you,'” Austin Rivers said before the Western Conference semifinals. “'And if you beat them, when you play the Warriors, they’re still not going to pick you. And if you beat them, and make it to the Finals and play the Cavs, they’re still not going to pick you.' People are not going to pick us. For whatever reason, people don’t like us. That’s fine. It just keeps motivating us.”