Throughout the course of this long season, the LA Clippers were darlings of sharp bettors and league intelligentsia, even as so many fans and even a healthy percentage of the Clippers’ peers sometimes wondered why.
They encouraged injured players to take plenty of time to recover, harped on the long view as a season-long mantra and load managed so aggressively that at one point they got fined $50,000 by the NBA for breaking procedures in resting Kawhi Leonard.
All of these are considered reputable tactics in this day and age, especially for a team with fragile stars. But it also seemed like it had an unfortunate side effect: the Clippers’ bad habit of procrastination. They like to leave their best play for later.
They meandered often during the season, fueling the Los Angeles Lakers and their fierce pursuit of the No. 1 seed.
In January, a fed up Montrezl Harrell harangued teammates to wake up and declared “We’re not a great team.“
In February it was Leonard, in a rare plume of emotion, dismayed by another malaise when he commanded: “I mean, now. The time is now,” when asked when the Clippers would start acting like their resume.
All these months later, it’s still happening. This time, in Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.
This is not to take away from Denver’s 110-101 win — they earned it and got 53 combined points from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
But this game was all about the first 12 minutes, wherein Denver played with so much more energy and effort than the Clippers that it resulted in allowing 44 points and creating a 19-point deficit.
It has long been said that the more desperate team often wins playoff games. It is the origin of the most go-to quote for every losing playoff team since the creation of the podium: “(The winning team) came out more aggressive.”
And the first quote out of coach Doc Rivers’ mouth Saturday: “I thought they just played more aggressive.”
At the next Zoom over, Leonard was saying the same.
But this is a cop out for teams that have legitimate title hopes as the Clippers do. They’re a deep team with a tremendous balance of depth, star power and veteran savvy, and it means they have a large margin for error, probably the widest of any of the remaining teams.
It’s why the Clippers were briefly within five points in the fourth quarter despite that first quarter steamrolling, even with Leonard and Paul George ultimately shooting a collective 11-of-36 from the field. The Nuggets, shamed by their defensive effort in Game 1, threw some double teams their way that were effective.
“We just need to play hard ourselves,” Rivers lamented. “They played with so much more force than us…it’s amazing we had a chance.”
The Nuggets are not a team to sleep on. The Utah Jazz can offer testimony to that from when their 15-point third quarter lead in Game 5 of their quarterfinals series blew up in a hail of Murray jumpers. The Jazz got a little too comfortable, and now they will have to spend the coming months and years twitching any time the numbers “3” and “1” and “lead” are assembled in any sentence.
Utah gave Denver life with that letdown, and now the Clippers have cracked the door for them again. The Clippers have been the better team for seven of the eight quarters so far in this series — but it’s 1-1.
That right there is how the first chapter of an upset story gets written.
“We’ve got to come ready, that’s it,” George said, adding another plea to this Clipper season’s annals. “There’s no blueprint to it. That’s on us. But we will be better for Game 3. There’s no pep talks for this, it’s the playoffs. We’ll be up for the fight and the challenge.”