Clippers end standout season with abrupt loss
"I can't believe it's over," Paul said to his power forward.
After a regular season unlike anything in the Clippers' mostly miserable history, everything ended with a decidedly Clipper-like first-round playoff flop. Their club-record 56 wins and first Pacific Division championship meant little against the rugged Grizzlies, who abruptly sent the Clippers to a perilous offseason in which Paul's free agency is only the largest of several uncertainties.
And though Paul, Griffin and their teammates have changed the sports world's perception of a franchise synonymous with losing during the best two-season stretch in club history, the Clippers' best regular season is already a memory.
"I have nothing to do," Paul said Saturday at the Clippers' Playa Vista training complex. "This is unreal. I had no idea that the season would be (over now). We only played two weeks longer than anybody else that didn't make the playoffs. It stings. ... This right here was unacceptable, though. We lost, first round, to a good Memphis team, but a team we were capable of beating."
Paul claimed he hasn't even started thinking about his future because he had planned to be playing until June.
"I'm going to take my time," Paul said. "I don't know how this whole thing is going to play out. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to do the rest of the day."
Paul was ejected from Game 6 in Memphis with 2:29 to play, although he claimed he said nothing to any official to warrant it. The Clippers mostly held their tongues about their 33 personal fouls and five technical fouls in the clincher -- even under questioning from 3-year-old fans.
"For me, the craziest thing is the season is over," Paul said. "I still haven't got that wrapped around my brain. I woke up this morning, and little Chris, I've got him in my bed, and the first thing he said was, `Daddy, why you lose again?' I told my wife last night on the bus ride to the airport, that's probably the toughest thing right now -- he's old enough to understand what's going on, and we don't have any more games."
While Paul is a jewel in the NBA's upcoming free-agent class, most league observers expect him to re-sign with the Clippers, given the North Carolina native's newfound fondness for Los Angeles and his burgeoning partnership with Griffin. Paul and Matt Barnes, another impending free agent, already spoke on the plane ride back from Memphis about the possibility of re-teaming this fall.
Coach Vinny Del Negro's contract also is up this summer, and while his players uniformly backed him while packing up for the summer, the Clippers' first-round loss could weigh on his future. Del Negro will speak publicly about the season Monday.
Once their future is more settled, the Clippers should be able to look back fondly on their dynamic season. Their landmark division title is a reward for one of the NBA's most exciting teams, a group that packed Staples Center nightly with fans eagerly anticipating the next alley-oop dunk and dramatic rally in Lob City.
After managing just six winning records in their first 41 years of existence, the Clippers have put together consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances for the first time in 20 years, and just the second time since the Buffalo Braves moved to California 35 years ago. Even with a lockout-shortened 66-game season in 2011-12, their 96 victories in the last two years are the most in franchise history, even more than the Braves managed in Bob McAdoo's heyday in the mid-1970s.
"Since I've been drafted, they've done everything they could possibly do to put this team in the position to win," Griffin said. "It's not necessarily going to happen right away. You've got to think about the history. In the three years I've been here, the three seasons I've been able to play, it's gone from (losing) that was kind of regular in terms of this franchise, to this season. For us, (this season) was kind of a breakthrough. We accomplished a lot of things."
The Clippers started well and struggled only occasionally. Los Angeles won 17 straight games during the holidays, going unbeaten in December with the longest winning streak in franchise history.
The Clippers even pushed past the Lakers for L.A. supremacy, sweeping their four-game season series with the 16-time NBA champions and finishing 11 games ahead of the third-place Lakers.
But with homecourt advantage in a playoff series for the first time since moving to California, the Clippers won the first two games at home -- and then promptly dropped four straight, failing to earn just the fourth playoff series victory in club history.
"I think with the franchise, we made tremendous strides as far as meeting goals and accomplishing things the franchise has never done before," said Barnes, who averaged a career-best 10.3 points per game and scored 30 points in their final loss in Memphis. "Those players in the locker room, to exit in the first round is something no one planned for. It's tough to swallow."
Paul, Barnes, Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom will be free agents this summer, with Paul eligible for a five-year, $108 million deal in July. Point guard Eric Bledsoe has another year left before restricted free agency, but he might have outgrown his backup role behind Paul.
Grant Hill also said he hasn't decided whether to return next year for the final season of his contract. The seven-time All-Star, who will turn 41 during training camp this fall, appeared in just 29 games this season, but has been a valuable veteran presence.
"I don't think any of us were expecting to have this day this early in the summer," Hill said Saturday. "If it is my last (season), I'm certainly proud of what I've been able to do."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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