It can’t be easy supporting the Los Angeles Clippers.
For over three decades, Clippers fans have endured mediocrity on and off the court. Bad draft picks, bad trades, stingy ownership, and deflating injuries (think Bill Walton and his terrible feet), have been the general themes.
At the same time, those big brother Lakers have been a model franchise—winning 17 championships (11 of those in L.A.), possessing some of the greatest players the game has ever known, and generally becoming one of the most iconic sports franchises in the world. Being known for Clipper Darrell hardly compares.
To say that the Clippers have lived in the shadow of its’ cross-town rivals, would be an understatement.
On Sunday afternoon, however, the Clippers went a small way to moving out of the shadow cast by the Lakers, and into the realm of respectability. It wasn’t easy, but in defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles won their most important game in franchise history — a game that will give the team and its fans immense confidence moving ahead.
Granted, the Clippers had won a playoff series against Denver in 2006, with Sam Cassell and Elton Brand at the helm, but this is a new era for the Clippers—one of exciting young talent and high expectations. A first-round loss wasn’t going to be acceptable.
In-fact, expectation levels were probably set a little too high for this team at the beginning of the year. Yes, the team had signed the best pure point guard in the league, and yes, they possessed an immensely talented young power forward, but the Clippers were a work in progress. This was never a championship caliber team.
Reflecting the sudden expectation levels were the calls for Vinny Del Negro’s head, during the predictable mid-season blip. The front office, whether because they had faith in Del Negro, or just didn’t see an alternative option, stuck with the status quo. To a large degree that continuity has paid off, and the Clippers have given a great account of themselves during the last month of the regular season, and in the playoffs thus far.
Of course, closing out the series on Sunday wasn’t going to be simple—especially not for this franchise with all its historical baggage. The Clippers were up against a tough, rugged Grizzlies team that had seemingly turned the series around—coming back from 3-1 down to force a Game 7. The odds were stacked against Los Angeles as they headed to Memphis for the decider. Home teams have been victorious in roughly 80% of Game 7’s, and the Grizzlies had all the momentum going in. To make matters worse, the Clippers were banged up. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Caron Butler were all carrying nagging injuries that would affect their mobility.
The second unit, however, more than made up for the injuries to the Clippers’ starters. Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, like they’ve done all series, pounded the glass and out-hustled the Grizzlies frontcourt, while Eric Bledsoe and Nick Young hit big shots down the stretch.
In-fact, you could say that overall it was an extremely un-Clippers like playoff victory. Grittiness, resilience and mental toughness, are not terms you would associate with past Clippers teams. The Clippers of yesteryear would’ve folded under such pressure (or likely not have gotten to a Game 7 in the first place). It was testament to the new winning culture that Chris Paul, in particular, has helped install in the franchise—a winning culture that meant that the Clippers were able to overcome adversity and win such a massive game.
Against the Spurs, the odds will be further stacked against this Los Angeles team. San Antonio has won 14 straight, and are 25-2 over their last 27 games—impressive to say the least. Furthermore, the weaknesses that hampered Memphis in their series with the Clippers: bad 3-point shooting, stagnant offense, and an inability to put games away, are not issues that ever seem to affect the Spurs.
Chris Paul is still not 100% healthy and Gregg Popovich will throw athletic young defenders, like Kawhi Leonard at Danny Green, at him constantly. At the same time, the Spurs are more than a match for the Clippers down low. Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan are playing solid at both ends, already having dealt comfortably with a much more threatening inside team in the Utah Jazz. Compounding things further, Del Negro will have to worry about stopping the Spurs’ dynamic scorers/play makers, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.
In other words, this will be an extremely tough series for the Clippers to win. The Spurs are rolling and it will take a performance of epic proportions for the Clippers to stop that train.
Whatever happens against the Spurs, however, the Clippers have taken a big step forward in their development this season. The likes of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Bledsoe will continue to get better, while Chris Paul should have plenty to encourage him after his first year in Los Angeles. Hopefully, for the Clippers sake, he will decide that his long-term future lies with his current employers.
It’s been a long, hard road for Clippers fans, but there are brighter days ahead. This season’s journey may end against San Antonio, but for such a historically beleaguered franchise, it’s a good start on the path to sporting redemption.