They’ve been in Los Angeles since 1984, but the Clippers still cut the figure of a Chipotle in a historic neighborhood. It’s Donald Sterling’s powerful putrescence, and the fact that they’ve been bad and cheap for most of their history, the Lakers getting to the desert ahead of them and winning a bunch of titles, their mediocre iconography, Mike Dunleavy’s miserable stewardship and Elgin Baylor’s screen-frying sweaters, Sterling again, Sterling a third time, Billy Crystal, a guy very famous for being from New York, being their most notable season ticket holder for quite a long time. Their current suite of jerseys—especially the streetball meets corporate drab numbers—cannot be helping matters. Kawhi Leonard and, to a lesser extent, Paul George are terrific players, but not cool or interesting people. They lose in the second round of the playoffs, to a spectacularly charismatic Nuggets squad, and the memes flow plentifully but what is on the other side of that schadenfreude? Whose good time has been ruined?
It feels both obvious and necessary to point out that Clippers fans exist. Friend of the program Louis Keene is one. The opening line from the Wednesday morning edition of his Clips newsletter Unstatable: “I guess there’s comfort in familiarity.” He’s not doing great. More astutely: “here’s something else I observed, which was made plain from the jump: the Clippers did not seem to value winning any particular game, all season.” Indeed they did not, appearing to figure that, being the most talented team in the league, they would come out on top of any contest eventually. What they could be, in theory, was what they would become, when they needed to. This would happen independently of their will. I’m sure by Game 12 of this series, we’ll have the Nuggets under our thumb.
It’s probably just Kawhi and PG’s sleepy dispositions, but they blew their title shot on Tuesday night with a puzzling lassitude, as if they had anesthetized themselves against failure before it happened rather than afterwards. The air around their bench was gluey with the anti-energy of three beers and an Ambien. Meanwhile the Nuggets, who prominently feature a seven-footer who plays like he’s striding through the shallow end of a pool, looked resplendently alive. It’s a good thing they won, or the game wouldn’t have made any sense.
We’ve got more time to spend with Denver, which is a gift. They are, by a comfortable margin, the most purely enjoyable team left in the playoffs. Perhaps that explains some of the happy antipathy against the Clippers, a franchise hardly anyone loves or hates, featuring stars that—Kawhi is his own inscrutable entity, and a more than proven champ, but does anyone in the world particularly like Paul George? If you’re a nomad whose personality amounts to a kind of shy peevishness, you need to win or at least lose heroically order to endear yourself to people. Going 4-for-16 in a Game 7 isn’t going to help. Portland’s backcourt certainly had fun with it.
This a time for the Clippers to collectively crawl under a rock, eat a nice meal and hang out with their dogs and/or kids, and when they reemerge, think about what kind of basketball team they would like to be. A successful one, obviously, but they are a strangely pole-less outfit. When the Raptors employed Kawhi, they ran Nick Nurse’s best-in-class motion offense around him. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Kawhi existed on top of it. Toronto would spread out and let him monologue, his ostensibly aimless drives concluding in tough jumpers that kept going in. Then he would recede and replacing him were pick and rolls and back cuts and dribble handoffs, shooters tightroping along the baseline and sprinting off screens. Kawhi wasn’t really of this system, but it didn’t get in his way, and vice versa. Which was great for the Raptors because one star, no matter how awesome, isn’t going to literally win you a game by himself. You have to build a mechanism that produces the other 50 to 80 points you need to come out on top.
The Clippers too often follow Kawhi’s rhythmless lead. Lou Williams and Montrez Harrell have their little two-man game that unfortunately doesn’t work in the playoffs, and Paul George is plenty skilled enough to score iso buckets of his own, but the team has no organizing principles, nothing automatic. There are stretches of Clipper games that have the inertness of a brainstorming session where each person thinks somebody else is about to speak. They reveal a terrifying fact of basketball that most professional teams are able to elide: you have to have some idea what you are trying to do. Like, all the time. On every possession. Or you’re just punting. You run some halfhearted actions 25 feet from the basket, and then somebody drives, and kicks it out to a guy who isn’t really open. A kinetic form of procrastination. And then, and then: well, whoever has the ball should probably shoot it now, since the shot clock is at two. Clank.
Some of this is Doc Rivers’s fault. His genius is managing egos, not tactics. “Play free,” he told his players in the locker room before Game 7. Solid advice, but less immediately helpful than a really reliable set play when the offense is coming apart. Perhaps management will get rid of Doc and bring in more of an Xs and Os coach for next year. Perhaps that’s the crucial defect that’s weighing down what everyone agrees is a championship-caliber roster.
Here’s some nonsense that feels a little bit true: the problem lives deeper than that, and when the Clippers lose big games, it is the blankness of their soul exploding outward at the worst possible time. They can’t win for the same reasons a wet match won’t light. Fortunately, that is not a real issue. The Clips can close the deal up 3-1 against an inferior team in the playoffs; it’s just that they haven’t and didn’t and don’t seem as if they’re ever going to. All they need to do to shatter this illusion is—well, do it.
Until then, they’ll continue radiating their familiar funk, medicine that tastes funny in a way that’s doubly displeasing because you had to get the store brand stuff; they were out of Tylenol. It’s their own Clippers-y thing, a thing nobody wants. You can’t put your finger on it, and you don’t have to, because a Lakers-Nuggets series will probably be a swell time. Let Kawhi, PG, and the rest figure it out, while you aren’t thinking about them. If they don’t, they don’t. You’re not sure you’re very invested anyway.