LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Clippers had their chances.
Instead, L.A.'s season ended with a whimper, the byproduct of back-to-back games in which the Clippers saw double-digit leads salted away by their own poor execution, furious Thunder comebacks and, of course, questionable calls from the referees.
On its own, the Clippers' 104-98 loss at Staples Center in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals was nowhere near the tragic travesty that put L.A. in a 3-2 hole in Game 5. There was no 13-point advantage with four minutes to go; the game was tied heading into the fourth, and it didn't take long thereafter for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to give OKC its first edge since the opening moments of the first quarter.
This time, the collapse was painfully slow, its means all too predictable.
The Clippers came out of the gate with tremendous energy, as if they were determined to prove that they'd already exorcised the ghosts of Game 5. L.A. held the high-powered Thunder to 16 points in the first quarter, and led by 16 with 7:28 in the second after a basket by Darren Collison.
"I thought we came out with a lot of emotion to start the game," head coach Doc Rivers remarked at a dreary post-game press conference, his gravelly voice tinged by a nasally sadness.
That emotion, though, may have worked against Rivers' players in the end. "I turned to one of my coaches," Rivers went on, "and said, 'I don't know if I like this because we better not hit a wall.'"
Rivers' warnings proved too prescient for the Clippers' comfort. Durant, who bounced back from a brick-tastic Game 5 in OKC with 39 points on 12-of-23 from the field along with 16 rebounds and five assists, nailed three consecutive shots from beyond the arc to cap a 13-2 run that cut L.A.'s lead to five with 4:37 left until halftime. The Clippers responded with a 9-0 spurt of their own, but couldn't keep Durant and Reggie Jackson (14 points off the bench) from putting OKC back within single digits before the break.
"I loved the position we were at, only down eight," Thunder coach Scott Brooks remarked after the game.
"I thought they did a good job of being patient, being disciplined and playing for one another in that second half at a high level."
Perhaps Rivers would've said the same for his guys had they stuck to their guns and executed when they were still up. Blake Griffin (22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) and Chris Paul (25 points, seven rebounds, 11 assists) both put together impressive stat lines, but neither seemed quite able to take control of the game when the Clippers needed them to.
"We just didn't execute," Griffin muttered into the microphone after the game. "We just kind of got away from what made us successful."
The burden shifted not to Jamal Crawford, but rather to L.A.'s other role players, for whom the task proved too tall. Crawford, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, notched four points on 2-of-5 shooting in just 14 minutes—by far his least visible showing of this postseason. All the while, Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick combined to hoist 31 shots, hitting just 11.
"I don't want to not give them [OKC] credit, but I really do think we got away from what got us the lead," Redick remarked. "You know, offensively, I think we got a little stagnant and then we stopped getting stops. We stopped trusting."
OKC, on the other hand, never did. But the Thunder had the benefit of years spent by their core group playing for the same coach within the same system. Brooks has come under fire for their simplicity and lack of variety and imagination among his schema, but at least the Thunder trust what they have because they've succeeded within its confines.
The Clippers, for all of their talent, haven't. Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (nine points, 15 rebounds) have played together for three years. Crawford just completed his second with the Clippers. Rivers and Redick came aboard last summer.
"I think we started coming together, [but] time ran out," Rivers said.
Rivers went on to illustrate the Clippers' supposed lack of a coherent identity by comparing his team to the Duke Blue Devils, who've been playing the same style of basketball for years under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Early in the year, I heard 'Clipper basketball.' I was like, 'What the hell is that? We're trying to figure out what that is."
For pretty much any other team in L.A.'s position basketball-wise, the offseason would afford it the opportunity to do that sort of soul searching. The Clippers don't figure to have that luxury. The specter of Donald Sterling will hang over this franchise until he's finally stripped of his ownership.
And it may be a while before that happens. Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann reported on Thursday that Sterling would not only refuse to pay the $2.5 million fine that NBA commissioner Adam Silver previously levied against him, but he also might sue the league if he's not afforded due process.
"I think I'm prepared for somewhat of a messy summer, mentally at least," Rivers responded when asked about the possibility of a protracted legal battle to settle the team's ownership situation. "I just think it's going that way."
Rivers can be grateful for the fact that the core of his team is already set and was good enough to win 57 games and give OKC a run for its money, at that. But the Clippers have some fairly clear needs to address—a "stretch four" and some legitimate size on their bench, to name a couple. Luring players to L.A. to fill those holes will be a tall order if Sterling's still fighting for every inch this summer, which would appear to be the case at this point.
To be sure, the Sterling controversy was no cakewalk for the Clippers in these playoffs, either. Paul and Griffin insisted that the Sterling saga had no effect on them, that their relationships with the disgraced real estate mogul hardly existed at all—contrary to Sterling's proclamations to CNN's Anderson Cooper that his players still love him.
In the end, though, Rivers copped to the impact of the off-court fiasco, not as an excuse but as a partial explanation. "The playoffs are hard enough without any of this stuff," Rivers added, before praising the Thunder for their role in the Clippers' on-court demise.
There's no telling how long the distractions will drag on, and what effect they'll ultimately have on the Clippers going forward. In theory, this team should be able to contend for years to come, but, as Rivers pointed out, "it's hard to win...Everything has to go right."
Everything didn't this time, and everything won't likely this summer.
Which makes the squandering of chances sting that much more for the Clippers. Rivers felt this team was good enough to win it all. Instead, the Clippers will turn their attention toward a trying offseason, without any true clarity or comfort as to what the future holds.
"It's tough," said Chris Paul at the podium. "You don't get a chance to be on teams like this that often."
Find me on Twitter for the latest on the Clippers.