Saturday, May 17, 2014

Inside the Clippers' Failed Playoff Run

Who beat the Clippers? Who kept them from turning a franchise-best season into at least a trip to the Western Conference Finals? Was it the Oklahoma City Thunder? Not really.

It was that selfish, racist owner Donald Sterling who torpedoed his team. When that anti-African-American rant, the one secretly recorded by his bitter ex-girlfriend, went public on TMZ, Sterling could have taken the high road and backed away and refused to play along with the media.. But he clearly loved the attention. So did his wife Shelly. They happily plunged into the media sewer, dragging the Clippers with them.

The team was never the same after that. The Clippers wanted to play basketball, to just focus on beating Golden State and Oklahoma City. But they couldn't. They wanted no part of the Sterling scandal. But they couldn't escape it. They had no choice. And they got buried.

Sources close to two team members report that Clippers officials were trying to downplay the effects of the the scandal, insisting that the players were fine, that things, after a brief, early.slip, were back to normal. But, according to these sources, it was clear in practices and in relationships between players and their relationships with family and friends, that things weren't the same. Far from it, in fact.

What happened was that people wouldn't leave the players alone about the scandal. It was everywhere they went. Dealing with that ugliness constantly turned them into different people.

 Said one source: "If you're around those guys a lot, you could see that the Sterling mess really changed them. This negative thing was hanging over them. It really drained their energy. They were snapping at each other, off the court and even on the court.. There was this negative vibe that wasn't there before. They used to laugh and joke around. They used to be hang loose and confident. But then they became anxious and tight. It was gloom and doom. Some of the guys couldn't sleep. Their heads were all wrong. Playing basketball should have been the main thing on their minds. But it never was, not after that Sterling mess hit the fan."

Continued the source: "It really effected Chris Paul. The whole thing depressed him. You could see him fighting it, but it was a losing battle. The Chris Paul in the OKC series, that wasn't the real Chris, not him failing in the clutch. And DeAndre Jordan? He was really down, not his usual self in the locker room. And on the court, his mind was somewhere else. He had a few good moments in that OKC series but he mostly disappeared. That really hurt the team."

The Clippers barely won the Warriors' series, which should have been a cinch for them since Golden State center Andrew Bogut, a huge defensive difference-maker, was out and there was no one else to effectively guard the interior. The real Clippers, the pre-scandal Clippers, would have rolled over that Bogut-less bunch. But they struggled and were lucky to win in seven.

According to the sources, there was no way the Clippers, in their fractured state of mind, were going to beat Oklahoma City, a much better team than the Warriors. The Clippers' blowout in that series opener in OKC was misleading, insisted the source: "The Clippers didn't win that game, the Thunder just didn't show up. They hadn't recovered from that brutal seven-game series with Memphis. They were too worn out to put up a fight. But they recovered next game. The real OKC showed up."

After that, the Clippers couldn't cope. Their heads were elsewhere. They couldn't muster up enough energy to play their usual brand of high-powered defense. They were usually a step slow, particularly on the perimeter, where they generally excel. OKC killed them with open shots. OKC is good, really good. You've got to be at the top of your game to beat them. The Clippers weren't even close.

After that opening game win in Oklahoma City, the Clippers had just two strong spurts in the next five games. One was at the end of the fourth game, which carried them to victory. The other was at the beginning of the sixth game, which translated into an early sixteen-point lead. But from then on, they didn't put up much of a fight, ultimately losing that game and the series..

Let's face it. The Clippers could have handled the scandal better. A stronger-willed bunch might have. But this was virgin territory. No NBA team has ever had to go through something like this while competing in the playoffs. Yes, the Clippers failed. But they only get part of the blame.

They were pushed into a cesspool and they drowned. But who pushed them in? That selfish, racist, idiot owner Donald Sterling. A lot of the Clippers' playoff failure is on him.