Clippers can't cheat growth process
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers' postseason began with one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history and all but ended Saturday with one of the biggest collapses.
It's a dubious bookend to a postseason that will be viewed as a learning experience by most but a disappointment by Chris Paul. His first trip to the second round of the playoffs was ended by the San Antonio Spurs four years ago. He said he has held on to that loss, and unless the Clippers can accomplish something that has never been done in the NBA playoffs -- come back from a 3-0 deficit -- his second trip to the conference semifinals will be derailed by the same team.
"It's never been done in history," Paul said of the Clippers' comeback chances after Saturday's 96-86 loss. "So it's worth a try."
These young Clippers have become accustomed to rewriting history this postseason.
The Spurs set an NBA record Saturday by overcoming a first-quarter deficit of 22 points to win. The previous mark was 21 points, in the 2008 Finals, when the Celtics trailed the Lakers 35-14 and came back to win 97-91. The Clippers' postseason, of course, began three weeks ago with the Miracle in Memphis, when they came back from a 27-point third-quarter deficit (and were down 24 points with 7:55 left in the game) to defeat the Grizzlies. It was the largest deficit any team had overcome in the playoffs.
After coming into the playoffs with three starters and half a roster with no playoff experience, the Clippers will leave as the first team to overcome a 27-point deficit and give up a 24-point lead in the same postseason.
It's not the kind of history this team wanted to be associated with, especially when facing the prospect of being swept by the Spurs on Sunday. Still, after Saturday's game, many Clippers seemed to take the loss as part of a larger learning experience.
The foundation for the Clippers' season was built during a weeklong stretch in December when the team acquired Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler. The team was given a catchy nickname, an aggressive marketing campaign and a bandwagon unlike anything Los Angeles had ever seen. The Clippers were essentially trying to microwave a championship contender overnight during this lockout-shortened season, and they went about as far as they could go.
Coach Vinny Del Negro preached this season about how you couldn't "cheat the process." Unfortunately for the Clippers, the process, or the time needed for a team to jell and grow into a title contender, wasn't going to happen during a 66-game season devoid of a full training camp and ample practice time.
That was never more evident than in this series against San Antonio and against Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who basically wrote the blueprint on the process while Del Negro was playing for him.
While the Clippers have come to embrace their "Lob City" nickname, wearing shirts and hats bearing the label, the Spurs' foundation has been built on a not-so-catchy quote from Jacob Riis that has been posted in the Spurs' home locker room for most of Popovich's career.
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"When nothing seems to help," it reads, "I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
The Clippers saw the quote come to life on the court Saturday, as they took a 24-point lead in the second quarter and didn't see the Spurs change course at all. If the Spurs continued to hammer away, they knew, in time, the Clippers would crack. Clippers players were almost in awe of the Spurs' consistency after the game as they talked about San Antonio's comeback.
"I heard Popovich say, 'If you pass down the shot, you're coming out of the game,'" Clippers guard Randy Foye said. "I heard him say that to Gary Neal and I heard him say that to Danny Green. That's just the confidence coming from the coach. ... And even if he misses, I'm running back with him, and I see [Popovich] clapping his hands and cheering him on. It's the system."
During San Antonio's 24-0, eight-minute run in the third quarter, the Spurs made 10 of 15 shots without any turnovers while the Clippers went 0-for-12 with two turnovers. Foye recalled a play during the run on which Tony Parker hit Manu Ginobili on a backdoor pass that could be completed only by a tandem that has played together for the past nine seasons.
"I overplayed [Ginobili] and I kind of felt him about to make the move but I said he can't because that pass is too tough," Foye said, "and at the last minute, when I was getting ready to rotate my feet, it came. He pushed my body up enough and made the play.
"Those guys have been playing together for so long that if they look at each other one way, they already know to go backdoor. When guys play together for a long time, all you have to do is look at that guy a certain way."
It's the kind of chemistry the Clippers simply don't have and not-so-secretly long for while they watch the Spurs slowly pick them apart, showing how far the Clippers have to go before they can truly be considered title contenders.
"I'm not going to lie to you. It was devastating today," Foye said. "It was tough on the psyche and definitely tough on the body. You're out there and you're giving it your all, and they go fast and then they go slow. It's basically like [Popovich] is over there saying, 'Pick your poison.'
"'Oh, you're going to take away Timmy [Duncan]; there goes Kawhi Leonard in the corner. Oh, you're going to take away Kawhi? Here's Ginobili, and Tony Parker is going to go coast to coast. If you take that away, we're going to kick it out to Danny Green for a 3.'
"It's pick your poison with those guys."