LOS ANGELES — So what’s next?
The Clippers almost got within range of the promised land. In most cases, “almost” at this stage of the season simply leaves a sour taste in your mouth. But this was different.
This is an organization that is No. 2 in its own city, and this was a group of players who, for the most part, had a lot for which to atone after the 2020 playoffs. Yet the scene inside Staples Center on Wednesday night, even with an ending that the Clippers didn’t want and in fact pretty much ran off the track in the final minutes of a 130-103 elimination game loss to the Phoenix Suns, suggests there’s a lot to build on here.
Their faithful stomped and shrieked, roared and raged, trying to will their team back into a game that started to take on the quality of a WWE exhibition or maybe the movie “Slap Shot” toward the end, with thrills and spills and flops and a former hero turned heel in Chris Paul.
But theirs was the last team standing in L.A., and that should count for something.
And while the Clippers might have fallen short of the eventual goal, the 2020-21 Redemption Tour was a success. These playoffs displayed the type of Clipper grit and competitiveness we saw from this franchise two years ago in a memorable first-round series against the then-dynastic Golden State Warriors. That, too, was a series that went six games, but it wasn’t supposed to last any longer than four. And the defining image might have been Patrick Beverley guarding Kevin Durant straight up during that playoff series and acting like it was not only perfectly normal but perfectly doable.
That was the roots of the street cred on which the Clippers tried to build a marketing plan, the whole “Driven over Given” campaign. That went away after 2020, when the Clippers imploded in the Orlando bubble and the team to which they were comparing themselves won a championship.
Maybe the 2021-22 campaign should simply say, The Grit Is Back. These Clippers faced 2-0 deficits in three consecutive series, an unforgiving every-other-day playoff schedule and a roster that got thinner because of injuries. But instead of quitting they kept coming back for more.
“Get rid of the bubble talk,” was the way Coach Ty Lue put it following Game 6, and I think we can bury it now. And feel free to consider it an alibi if you wish, but it’s a legitimate question: How much differently would this series have looked if Kawhi Leonard had been on the court throughout?
“We don’t know,” fellow All-Star Paul George said. “You talk about one of the best players in the league being out, yet we were inches away from getting to the next round. So definitely it’s a what-if on this.
“The fact of the matter is we just didn’t do enough to win. That’s the reason we’re going home.”
This season and these playoffs provided some blocks with which to build. Among the things we learned? Lue is a darned good coach, and he further demonstrated why with this playoff run.
“He’s one of the best coaches in this league, one of the best young coaches in this league,” Marcus Morris said. “He’s proven that time after time. Doesn’t matter who you have on your team. You still have to coach them. I mean, you know, LeBron (James, who won a ring with Lue in Cleveland) is a great player but he doesn’t win every year. No player wins every year. You have to have a great coach that connects with the players, and he does that.”
Culture, and the talk of building it, has become a cliché in sports. (As is the “great group of guys” meme.) So you can take it with a grain of salt when Morris and George and Reggie Jackson talked of how much they enjoyed this group and how close the locker room was.
Except that Jackson was almost moved to tears talking about this group, which suggests it’s not necessarily cliché.
“It sucks that it fell short,” he said. “But I haven’t had too many better seasons and better locker rooms, better groups.
“This was a family. We really found a way, quickly, found a way to (welcome) guys who were coming in and who were new and found a way to throw last year out the window for those who returned. We came together and we did something special this year. Like I said, fell short of what we really wanted, but yeah, I couldn’t be more proud of the group of guys that we have in the locker room.
“… This city is special to me. I can’t predict the future, I have no idea what happens, but this city, this organization, this fan base is special. It holds a special place in my heart forever. I’ll forever be a Clipper. I’m thankful. I’m thankful for this opportunity. I’m thankful for everybody who has been part of the journey who supported and made this year special.”
If you’re a Clipper fan and you’ve been paying attention, those are heartening words. Jackson can be a free agent, and his performance in these playoffs raised his value considerably. It could have even priced him out of the Clippers’ budget for salary cap purposes. Would he take less to stay?
That’s one major dilemma Lawrence Frank and his front office will face. The other, bigger one? Whether Kawhi Leonard will exercise the player option on the third and final year of his Clippers contract and depart. If he opts out but chooses to re-sign, the build toward a potential championship would seem a lot more achievable than if he leaves.
“I think we’ve both grown, myself and Kawhi,” George said. “I think we really enjoy being teammates, and we see what we can be and what we can do. I’m happy to be his teammate … I think we’ve got a good foundation.”
And yes, George said, he’s willing to do what he can to help keep the gang together.
“Hopefully this is where they want to continue to play and grow and be something and do something special in the long run,” he said. “Yeah, I’m definitely going to try my hardest to recruit.”
The pitch shouldn’t be that difficult.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter
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