|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
OAKLAND, Calif. -- They had dispensed with decades of ineptitude. It still wasn't enough. The Los Angeles Clippers had their own set of disappointments to deal with, fresh wounds that carried more personal relevance than the woeful records of teams of bygone days.
There's a whole new wave of late-night talk show hosts -- Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and the like -- who can't use the Clippers as source material for jokes the way Arsenio Hall and Jay Leno used to.
Yet, we still can't reference the Clippers as a standard of excellence. Not until they get past their own shortcomings, the baggage they packed with them on this trip to Oakland that included a five-game road losing streak in the playoffs dating back to 2012.
Even their first-round opponents, the Golden State Warriors, can claim more triumphs than the Clippers, having won two games in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs last year -- two more than the Blake Griffin-Chris Paul Clippers won when they made their lone foray to the conference semifinals against San Antonio in 2012.
|Blake Griffin poured in 32 points in the Clippers' Game 3 win.|
In addition, the Warriors could lay claim to honors in this series.
"They're ahead, even though it's 1-1, because they have home court now," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game.
Now it's the Clippers who have the edge, not just mentally or "effectively." Actually.
They're up 2-1, thanks to holding off the Warriors 98-96 in a game that veered from ugly to bold statement to escape.
They have so far to go just to win this series, let alone to get to the previously off-limits conference finals. So much failure, from "generational curses" (as Warriors coach Mark Jackson described his own franchise's history) to self-inflicted setbacks, isn't easily overcome. Which is why this game felt like a breakthrough.
"We won a lot of games, we did a lot of things the franchise had never done, but we lost in the first round [last year]," Jamal Crawford said. "So it was like everybody forgot about it."
It's why you're seeing more emotion than normal from Griffin, whether it's yelling "Let's go!" to the home crowd in Game 2 or excitedly barking at his teammates all the way back to the bench after hitting a jumper that gave the Clippers a double-digit lead and forced the Warriors to call timeout in the third quarter of Game 3. It's why Griffin has elevated himself from regular-season star to playoff star, scoring 32 points Thursday to give him 30-plus in back-to-back games.
It's why DeAndre Jordan had single-handedly grabbed almost a third of the available rebounds through two-plus quarters and finished with 22 rebounds in the game, to go with five blocked shots, providing the defensive presence that Griffin called the difference in this game and the playoff road losses of the past.
It's why Matt Barnes checked back into the game after jamming a big toe that had to be painfully manipulated back into place by the team's athletic trainer.
It's why Paul is dragging with a strained right hamstring for 34 minutes even while Rivers seriously considered benching him for good, why Paul devoted his attention to defensively harassing Warriors guard Stephen Curry all night until it was the fourth quarter, when Paul made three of his five baskets on the night.
"It's winning time," Paul said of his shift to scoring mode late in the game.
He hasn't won that many times in the playoffs, with three first-round exits on his ledger.
"I'm tired of going home early," Paul said.
There were more recent memories for the Clippers to shake off. Griffin had to step to the free throw line with 26.4 seconds left, having missed six of his first seven attempts, with the Clippers clinging to a three-point lead. Paul went there 15 seconds later and the lead down to a single point, less than a week after his final two missed free throws cost the Clippers their last chance of winning Game 1.
Both Griffin and Paul made one free throw apiece. It wasn't the epitome of clutch, but it was just enough. Enough to provide the winning margin. Enough to end a dubious losing streak. Enough to generate a little inertia moving forward.
"I just tell them a lot there's no individual stuff until we do team stuff," Rivers said. "We've got to do that. Enough of talking about it."
Warriors fans will be grumbling about the non-call when Paul closed in on Curry's final 3-pointer. They'll harp about the Warriors' woeful 3-point shooting: 6-for-31 in this game. But nothing their vocal cords could do, not even the formidable noise they generate, could deter the Clippers in Game 3.
Neither could the past. Friday was the 20th anniversary of when David Robinson dropped 71 points against the Clippers to snatch the scoring title from Shaquille O'Neal on the final day of the season, bringing back old footage of Robinson scoring at will against the Clippers in a half-empty, run-down Sports Arena.
Old ways don't die easily. Especially when there's a history major from Duke around, as J.J. Redick playfully reminded his teammates during some locker-room banter.
The Clippers did something different Thursday night. They didn't write or erase history, or even guarantee a successful future. Still, it has been a while since their present felt so good.