LOS ANGELES -- The Clippers' curse.
It's a term that had long been exorcised from the lexicon of Clippers players and coaches. It’s a foreign concept to anyone who became a fan of the team within the past four years. It was a seemingly tired old joke that had been dead and buried as the Clippers sat one win away from their first conference finals berth on Thursday night.
But as Clippers fans new and old began to celebrate what was to be the biggest win in franchise history, they were suddenly punched in the face by a dramatic unraveling that culminated in the biggest collapse in franchise history, which, of course, is saying something for this long-suffering team.
The Clippers led the Houston Rockets 89-70 with 2:17 left in the third quarter before coming undone and getting outscored 49-15 -- 40-15 in the fourth quarter alone -- to lose 119-107. After taking a 3-1 series lead and leading every game of the series but one by at least 15 points, the Clippers must now travel to Houston to play Game 7 to save their season.
It was a collapse of epic proportions and an introduction to a curse that was known only to fans and employees of the team before Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers in 2011.
After the game, the Clippers' locker room, which is normally filled with music and the sound of players’ children running around and wrestling with each other on the floor, was completely muted. Most of the players had left while Doc Rivers was addressing the media in the new-conference room. Rivers himself was still trying to come to terms with what he had just witnessed.
“I think there's probably a plethora of emotions when something like this happens,” Rivers said. “You know, I felt bad for them, honestly, because they want it so bad, and sometimes you want stuff so bad that you can't get it because you're in your own way, and I thought we clearly got in our own way tonight. And again, it's not because they don't want it. They do. And they want it so much that we couldn't think straight. You know, that's my job. I've got to try to get them through it.”
Rivers has been a master motivator during these playoffs and at the end of the season as the Clippers reeled off 14 wins in their final 15 games. But even he admitted there wasn’t much he could say to a team that walked off the court as if they had been greeted by the ghosts of Clippers past.
“What can you say tonight that they hear you?” Rivers said. “I did say stuff, but I guarantee you they have no idea what I said. When you lose a game like this, you're pretty down. You pretty much want to go home, and I'm sure that's what they're going to do.”
There were times this season when it looked like the Clippers' curse of old would rise from the dead, but each time, this team showed why it's different and a far cry from the teams that had broken their fans’ hearts time and time again.
You could hear the moans from longtime season-ticket holders when Chris Paul strained his left hamstring in Game 7 of their first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers fought back from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to force a Game 7 only to see their star player sidelined with an injury.
It was the most Clippers-like way to ruin a storybook ending, but then Paul returned and gutted out a game-winning shot to dethrone the champions. It was not only the biggest win in franchise history, but it changed the narrative of the team. The cursed franchise was now legitimate a championship contender.
And then Paul was forced to miss the opening of the second round, forcing old school fans to wonder if those dark clouds still remained. The Clippers, however, responded with a blowout win without Paul in Game 1, nearly stole Game 2 and blew out the Rockets by 25 or more points in back-to-back games in Los Angeles to take a 3-1 series lead. In NBA history, teams that have led a best-of-seven series 3-1 have gone on to win the series 96.5 percent of the time. Prior to this series, 227 teams had trailed 3-1 but only eight came back to win, with the last being the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns over the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
Not only were the Clippers one win away from the conference finals, but they became the favorites in some circles, including ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, to win the NBA championship.
Going into Game 5, Clippers forward Matt Barnes talked about how much the Clippers had grown during the postseason and how much he felt the Rockets had left to grow.
“Houston is mentally where we were maybe at the beginning of this season and, for sure, last season,” Barnes told ESPN.com. “Very talented, but we didn’t stay the course. That was always our problem. We couldn’t stay locked in for a series or for a whole game. Closeout games are always the toughest, but we know this is the time to get them right now. We need some rest.”
After losing two straight to Houston, the Clippers are one more loss from getting all the rest they want this offseason and reviving the Clippers' curse by being just the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead.
If there is one silver lining to the dark clouds that hovered over Staples Center on Thursday night, it’s that the Clippers are 3-0 in Game 7s over the past four seasons. They were forced to win Game 7 at Memphis after blowing a similar 3-1 series lead to the Grizzlies in 2012 and beat the Golden State Warriors and Spurs in Los Angeles in Game 7 of the first round the past two postseasons.
“We've been in this situation several times now,” Blake Griffin said. “A couple times at home, once on the road. You know, we've got to come out and play. I mean, there's nothing more to it. Game 7 is Game 7; it's about who wants it more, and I expect us to be ready.”