<
>

Why the Clippers' collapsing fate should not be a reason for curses

play
Should the Clippers blow up their roster? (1:38)

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill debate whether the Clippers should trade away key pieces of their roster or keep the team intact for another run at a title. (1:38)

If the Los Angeles Clippers -- losers of three straight games to the Portland Trail Blazers after winning the first two -- drop one more game, it would mark the fourth consecutive season in which the Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs in a series during which they had held a lead.

What kind of sad, sorry franchise blows a series lead four straight years? How about ... the Boston Celtics? At the tail end of the original Big Three era of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics couldn't take advantage of early playoff edges from 1990-93. They're the only NBA team with such a streak, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

So the banner-less Clippers would share that dubious distinction with the team that's won an NBA-high 17 championships and has a lucky leprechaun for a logo. Maybe that would put an end to the prevalent belief that bad breaks and failures are the exclusive province of the Clippers, that any hardship that comes their way is destiny.

It's also a lesson that disappointment is actually a byproduct of hope, and setbacks only come after progress. Were the Clippers cursed when they won the 2009 draft lottery even though the Sacramento Kings had a worse record? Were they snakebit when NBA commissioner David Stern, acting on behalf of the then-league-owned New Orleans Hornets, voided the Chris Paul trade to the Los Angeles Lakers? Those were the events that paved the way for Paul and Blake Griffin, the franchise cornerstones, to become Clippers in the first place. Without those fortuitous moments, they wouldn't have had the devastating news that both players would miss the remainder of this series and beyond with injuries.

The past can shape and frame the future, but it doesn't determine it. That's the case for both the good and the bad. On Thursday, when a reporter on a conference call mentioned the Clippers' success against the San Antonio Spurs last year in the same scenario they face now -- needing a road victory to stave off elimination after losing Game 5 at home -- Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, "That's last year and this is this year."

The pertinent discussion about the Clippers has already moved to next year. Even if they manage to come back and beat the Trail Blazers, this team can't go deep into the playoffs as presently constituted. Maybe it wasn't capable of going deep into the playoffs even at full strength.

Two league sources said the Clippers have already speculated about what they must do to improve, and are open to making whatever changes are necessary.

Rivers sounded a contrary note before Game 5, saying, "I think we like who we are. I think I've evaluated that already."

I was surprised Rivers even answered the question about assessing the season given the absence of Griffin and Paul -- the season hadn't even ended. He added: "We didn't have Blake all year, for the most part" and who knows, that could mean Rivers grew comfortable with the prospect of life without the star power forward. After all, the Clippers did win two-thirds of their games without Griffin, thanks in large part to the elevated play of Paul.

But Paul turns 31 next month, and this will be the second consecutive season in which he was injured in the playoffs after showing durability during the regular season. If the Clippers are pivoting in a new direction, would it be wise to lean on the older star?

Griffin turned 27 last month. That's traditionally the age when players enter their prime. The flip side: Griffin could bring back more in a trade -- unless teams are scared off by the quadriceps injury and how it could affect the leaping ability that has been an important aspect of his game.

Can the trust and goodwill be repaired after Griffin both hurt a member of the Clipper family and cost the team his services when he broke his right hand while punching an assistant equipment manager during an argument at a restaurant? One Clipper described Griffin's status as "rebuilding." That was before Griffin was ruled out for the playoffs after aggravating the quadriceps injury. Any more rebuilding won't be done on the court, which is always the best way for players to make amends.

Now it's up to what remains of the Clippers to avoid the historical footnote. The 1990 Celtics were up 2-0 on the New York Knicks, coming off a 157-128 victory in Game 2, then lost three straight, including Game 5 in Boston Garden. (The first round was a best-of-5 format from 1984 to 2002). In 1991, Boston blew a 2-1 lead over the Detroit Pistons in the second round. In 1992, the Celtics led the Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1 in the second round. Larry Bird's back was ailing and he played in only four games. In 1993, the first season after Bird retired, the Celtics won Game 1 of the first round and then lost three straight to the Charlotte Hornets.

The Clippers' infamous run began with a blown 2-0 lead over Memphis in the first round in 2013, and continued after they won the first game of the second round in Oklahoma City in 2014. Last year featured the brutal Game 5 fourth-quarter meltdown against the Houston Rockets that led to the Clippers becoming just the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead.

These things don't just happen to the Clippers -- they happen because they're the Clippers.

"It's certainly the narrative of the team," J.J. Redick said this week. "I don't think it's all some linear progression of a curse or bad luck on our part. Sometimes these things happen. Sometimes they happen to good players and to good people.

"Life's not easy. Basketball is a game we're blessed to play. But winning in the playoffs is tough. Moreso than anyone else we've really proven that over the last three years."

Not more than the Boston Celtics.