It took 13 months from when they started believing they were going to win a championship that the LA Clippers had to finally play a truly meaningful game.
Oh, there were important games, like the first few in their series with the Dallas Mavericks. There were games they badly wanted, like opening night back in October against the Lakers and the rematch on Christmas afternoon.
But something like dealing with the stress of a Game 5 in a 2-2 series, the kind of night that affects jobs, contracts and legacies? No, in another unusual side effect of this unusual time, they had not.
Over and over again, the Clippers rolled back the concept that they needed to be their best, partly due to design and then to circumstance. Occasionally, they got caught snoozing, like a game-winning cold water slap from Luka Doncic via a stepback 3-pointer in Game 4.
Then in eight minutes Tuesday night, they reminded everyone, including themselves, what all the fuss was about. It was a 32-6 run they put on the Mavericks in those eight first half minutes that cut away all the cobwebs from the long wait. The final score was 154-111, but it was that stretch in that first half that probably should’ve made the remaining Western Conference playoff teams collectively say “oh, right.”
“It was awesome,” said coach Doc Rivers, who has had his patience tested regularly since last fall.
Much of the attention for this moment will be paid to Paul George, who exploded from a slump to score 35 points in just 25 minutes. It took a Clipper village to raise him from it. Rivers came to see him for one of those coach-player pick-me-up chats. Montrezl Harrell came over to his room to play video games. JaMychal Green implored George to shut off his social media, which he did. He talked to his parents, his girlfriend and the team psychiatrist.
George, like other players have said in the Orlando bubble including LeBron James, admitted the challenge of this endeavor had a negative effect on his mental health.
“The bubble got the best of me. I was just in a dark place,” George said. “I really wasn’t here.”
There is also the fact that George, throughout his career, has been a streaky player in the postseason. Sometimes his ability to be his team’s best player on offense and defense has been mesmerizing, dating all the way back to 2013 when he led the Indiana Pacers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus Miami, at the age of 23.
And sometimes he can fade into the wallpaper, like that Game 7, when he went 2-of-9 from the floor and fouled out in 33 minutes.
His career playoff shooting percentage in 81 games is under 42%. George is a star who has bad shooting nights and bad shooting weeks. And, with that sample size at the age of 30, it’s fair to guess that will continue to be the case.
Which is one of the biggest reasons why George was so willing to listen when Leonard called him last June and asked to meet – at Drake’s house near Los Angeles, in an interesting little tidbit for the history books – to discuss teaming up with the Clippers.
George wanted to come play in a great city with another great player for a great coach on a team with great depth that had great management and the richest owner in American sports who seems by all accounts to be a great boss.
The entire point of this exercise was so that a bad game — or a bad three games — wouldn’t cost his team a season. It just took the Clippers so long to get here that it was easy for everyone to lose a little focus.
It was all there in that 32-6 run to end the first quarter.
George was defending Doncic and the Clippers were using their size and flexibility defensively to trap him and totally frustrate him. Not the lazy, November-level traps from Game 4, but the traps of a team with some of the best defensive personnel in the league.
Leonard was getting into the paint, sticking his pivot foot to a spot and twisting into his indefensible midrange jumpers. George was mixing up his game, going inside and out with easy baskets helping his confidence shooting from the outside grow. Harrell, who has been in a daze since returning from a month away following the death of his grandmother, was disrupting everything with energy and force. Marcus Morris was getting under Doncic’s skin and irritating other Mavs. Landry Shamet and Reggie Jackson were hitting 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, over on the bench the Clippers were screaming with delight as they exuded joy they’ve rarely shown this season. In other words, they finally joined the playoffs. They finally got to the place they’d supposedly been preparing for this last calendar year. Tuesday was a display of what their final form can be.
“We played hard, we played right, we played with a great spirit,” Rivers said. “We’re growing still. We’ve not had the normal time together like other teams.”
If it’s here to stay, as so many predicted when they were formed so long ago, it’s going to be something to watch.