Between a blown lead, abysmal coaching, and a loss at the buzzer, yesterday’s game 4 was an incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking loss–but was it the worst Clippers playoff loss ever?
Clippers legend Ralph Lawler thinks so, posting on twitter:
While a number of longtime Clippers fans disagree, Ralph defended the claim, adding in a later tweet: “they were Up by 21 against a Mavs team playing w/o KP and with Doncic limping around the court. Considering that & chance to go Up 3-1 , I think it is worst loss Ever.”
Surely, this loss is up there: the Clippers, heavily favored in the series, fell to 2-2 in a game where they had a massive lead and the other team’s second-best player was out with injury. Not only that, but we had to go through the extreme frustration of blowing a 21-point lead and then the heartbreak of losing at the buzzer in overtime after the Clippers fought back to tie the game at the end of regulation and take the lead in the closing seconds.
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Personally, I don’t rank this game at the top of the list (sorry, Ralph). Let’s take a look at some of the other contenders, and then let me know in the comments which of these games (or which one I didn’t include!) is your worst Clippers playoff loss ever.
2006: Clippers – Suns Game 5
Before there were the Chris Paul collapses of Lob City, there were the 2006 Clippers. LA strategically dropped to the 6th seed in the closing days of the season to secure a preferred match-up with the Denver Nuggets, and dispatched Carmelo Anthony and co. in a tidy 5 games in the first round, marking the team’s first playoff series victory since they were the Buffalo Braves playing best 2-of-3 series in 1976. Five games remains the quickest Clippers victory in a playoff series ever.
They rolled into the second round against the famous Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s, and led by Elton Brand, stole game 2 in Phoenix. The Suns took home-court back in game 3, and the two sides ended up tied 2-2 heading into a crucial, hard-fought game 5 in Arizona.
The Clippers played from behind, trailing by as much as 17 in the third quarter, and finally tied the game at 101 with a clutch three from current Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell in the final minute. On the Clippers’ next possession, Cassell was bringing the ball up with just over 30 seconds to play… and he took too long, taking an 8-second violation. The two teams traded misses to head to OT, but the Clippers had missed a chance to run a full possession and get a good shot after a grueling comeback.
A tight OT period was all but over when Cassell stole the ball from Nash with 3.8 seconds remaining, took an intentional foul, and walked calmly to the line and sank both free throws to give the Clippers a three-point lead. But during the Suns’ timeout to draw up one final look, Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy went beyond his normal Cassell-Quinten Ross offense-defense substitution–he took Elton Brand out of the game for the 6’3″ Daniel Ewing, who had played just 18 seconds on the night.
Raja Bell bumped Ewing, creating space to dart to the corner and get a clean look over the smaller defender. Tie game. Double overtime. The Suns held on for a 125-118 win, and went on to win the series in 7 games.
2014: Clippers – Thunder game 5
In another hard-fought series (seriously, there were a ton of close games in this one), LA and OKC found themselves tied 2-2 heading into game 5 in Oklahoma City.
The Clippers, playing underdog against a Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant-led Thunder side (that also featured a much younger Reggie Jackson), controlled the pivotal road game almost the whole way, leading for over 45 of the game’s 48 minutes and almost immediately claiming a double-digit lead in the first quarter. The Thunder kept the game in single digits for most of the second half, until the Clippers began to pull away in the fourth, leading by 13 with four minutes to play.
It was a familiar pattern for Lob City fans: the Clippers slowed the game down and played prevent offense, with one possession where Chris Paul literally came out of a timeout and shot an elbow jumper after using 23 seconds of the shot clock. The Thunder put together a 9-0 burst despite Paul’s best time-burning efforts, ultimately making the game close, but it should have been iced when the Clippers secured an offensive rebound on a missed free throw and Paul sank a trademark elbow jumper to give LAC a 7-point lead with 49.2 seconds to play.
But Durant responded with a quick-hitter three over Glen Davis on a switch (good lord, Glen Davis getting switched onto Durant in the final minute of game might be even worse than Reggie Jackson getting switched onto Luka in the final minute of a game), and then the Thunder’s trapping defense forced the ball out of Chris Paul’s hands and into Jamal Crawford’s, whose layup rimmed out. Still, up 4 with 22 seconds to play.
The Thunder threw a quick outlet to Durant, who scored in transition to cut the deficit to 2 with 17.8 seconds left. A less-than-ideal 5-0 spurt in 31.4 seconds, but LA was still in control of the game with possession, a lead, the shot clock turned off, and elite free throw shooters.
Instead of taking the 2-shot intentional foul, Chris Paul tried to draw a three-shot shooting foul from 75-feet away–a ploy he frequently attempted and was never successful with–and left his feet, ultimately turning the ball over to Russell Westbrook. With possession and a 2-point deficit, OKC turned to the real villains of this game: the referees, who blew two calls in the closing seconds to produce a 105-104 Thunder victory.
First, in the ensuing chaos following the turnover, Matt Barnes stripped Reggie Jackson of the ball as he drove to the basket. While it could be argued that Barnes fouled Jackson, the officials didn’t call a foul and, under NBA rules, were only allowed to review the footage to determine who the ball went off of. It unambiguously went off of Jackson, but (perhaps to make-up the perceived missed foul call) the referees awarded the ball to Oklahoma City. The same exact situation was called the opposite way against the Clippers in the first round, with Paul clearly fouled but technically touching the ball last and LAC losing possession because review could only determine out-of-bounds and not be used to retroactively call a foul.
Then, Westbrook, a notoriously poor shooter, took an ill-advised three with plenty of time remaining, and bricked it so poorly that the referees called a foul on the defending Paul–despite Paul literally not touching Westbrook on the play, as shown in slow-motion replays. Westbrook made all three foul shots, and on LA’s final possession, Paul drove and lost the ball when Jackson reached in and hit him on the arm. The officials chose to swallow their whistles, and a would-be pivotal win turned into a pivotal loss, as the Clippers would also lose game 6 and be eliminated, 4-2.
2015: Clippers – Rockets Game 6
Of all four losses we’ll discuss today, this one was the most excruciating, in my opinion–though you can perhaps argue that it wasn’t the “worst” based on the criteria Ralph laid out. After a grueling first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers got the jump on the Rockets in the second round by stealing game 1 in Houston by 16 points without Chris Paul. They took care of business in LA with two blowout wins (25 points in game 3 and 33 points in game 4) and carried a commanding 3-1 lead into game 5, where the Rockets protected their home-court advantage.
Still, up 3-2 in the series, coming home to LA where they had just blown the Rockets out twice. The Clippers had every reason to be confident, and as their 2-point halftime lead grew into the early makings of a rout in the third quarter, that confidence grew. It wasn’t lost on me or any of the other 20,000 fans at STAPLES Center that night that the Clippers–our Clippers–were going to their first Western Conference Finals.
LA led by as much as 19, and a frustrated James Harden picked up a third-quarter technical and later went to the bench with 1:33 to play in the third shooting just 5-20 from the field. He would not return to the game.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching this game live, in person. As Houston chipped away, cutting the lead to 13 at the end of the third and 9 early in the fourth, the mood stayed celebratory. LAC was taking care of business. Paul got to the foul line and hit both shots. Griffin found Redick for a three. We were fine.
Then, in the 90-second span from hell, journeymen backups Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, both abysmal three-point shooters over large sample sizes in their career, caught fire. The two scored 12 points to cut the Clippers’ lead to 5 with 6:25 to play, and the return to earth for the Clippers players and the crowd at STAPLES was so jarring that it felt like LA never started playing basketball again.
In fact, from Paul’s layup with 6:47 play, the Clippers would not score again until he got to the foul line with 1:01 remaining and the Rockets possessing a 10-point lead. In the preceding minutes, Brewer and Smith continued to lead Houston’s onslaught, as the Rockets won the final frame 40-15 behind 29 combined fourth-quarter points from those two–two not particularly good players having the quarter of their lives.
Reeling from the loss, and fatigued from playing their fourteenth consecutive playoff game with only one day off in between each (including just one day off between game 7 vs the Spurs and game 1 vs Houston), the Clippers dropped game 7 in Houston and saw the team’s best chance ever at a second-round victory slip through their fingers.
I sort of get the angle Ralph is coming from by calling this the Clippers’ worst playoff loss ever–in 2006, they were underdogs against the Suns and played from behind to force OT. Raja Bell hit a big shot. It happens. In 2014, the Clippers were again underdogs and as much as they relinquished a lead, they also did enough to deserve the win without repeated missed calls–did I mention the out of bounds call was clear and they got it wrong despite looking at the obvious slow-motion replay? In 2015, it was less the Clippers’ failure and more unlikely events only explainably by divine intervention that cost them the game.
Yesterday’s game was entirely on the hands of Doc Rivers, Paul George, and the rest of the Clippers roster. It was the only one of the games listed here where LAC was the clear favorite and clear better team, and mixed the collapses of OKC and Houston with the overtime heartbreak of Phoenix.
But at the same time, it was the lowest-stakes game of the four, occurring in the first round and not putting the Clippers on the brink of elimination (each other game was the opponents’ third win of the series). I can’t lie– for me, game 6 to the Rockets is the worst Clippers playoff loss ever.
What do you think?