It's nearing 10:30 p.m. on April 17, a pleasant spring evening in downtown Los Angeles, and the locker room that houses the Clippers basketball team looks like a daycare center.
Seven boys, their ages ranging from two to 10, are pinging around the room—chirping, hooting, clambering in and out of locker stalls and rolling chairs, bouncing a stray ball until it skitters away.
Soon the giggling gaggle is drawn to the middle stall, where Austin Rivers, the Pied Piper of Clipperdom, welcomes them with smiles and high-fives. Rivers, a 23-year-old backup guard, opens his wallet and sends each sprightly face away with a crisp dollar bill.
A few feet away, 10-year-old Emmet O'Connor, the son of assistant coach Brendan O'Connor, belts out a familiar lyric—"Droppin' dimes! Droppin' dimes!"—the signature line from a TV commercial featuring Clippers star Chris Paul and the Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, who happens to be in the visiting locker room down the hall.
The Clippers have just rolled to a 115-95 victory over the Blazers to open the playoffs. And in Clipperdom, home victories mean one thing: The kids get to visit the locker room.
It's a Doc Rivers tradition. First they visit his office, a parade of mini-Pauls and Griffins and Prigionis, each greeting him with a "Hey, Coach!" Then they file into the locker room.
"It's really like a family," veteran guard Jamal Crawford, who has two boys, would say later. "The most family atmosphere I've been around."
As Rivers will later explain, "We just try to douse our guys with love."
In this moment, on this mid-April night, the Clippers are a portrait of joyful harmony.
The broken hand that will end Paul's season is still nine days away. The grim diagnosis on star forward Blake Griffin—aggravated quad, out for the playoffs—is 10 days away. And the 106-103 loss in Game 6 that will serve as the Clippers' death knell is still 12 days away.
The end will be sudden and grisly, packed with pain and anguish and renewed doubts about the Clippers' resolve, indeed their entire future.
A nagging question looms: Are these the last days of Lob City?
A breakup of the Paul-Griffin-DeAndre Jordan core seems more likely than ever—not inevitable, but no longer inconceivable. It's on the table, and everyone knows it. The Clippers, once the NBA's most dazzling team, all fast breaks and soaring alley-oops, have stalled out.
Dazzling, but not as deep as the Golden State Warriors.
Potent, but not as polished as the San Antonio Spurs.
Every playoff run in the Paul-Griffin era has ended in ignominy—blown leads, fumbled possessions, frayed nerves—without even a sniff of the conference finals.
Six months ago, Rivers openly wondered if his team was growing stale. Another early exit—even with the caveats of injury and misfortune—only seems to affirm those fears.
Yet in this moment, on this mid-April night, optimism reigns.
Griffin has returned from the quad injury that sidelined him for most of the season, and he looks better than anyone expected—exploding, soaring and dunking all over Portland's Mason Plumlee in Game 1.
J.J. Redick's bruised heel is a concern, but he just dropped 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Jordan looks fearsome—his ghastly free throws notwithstanding—and Paul looks as steady as ever.
The Clippers just throttled the Blazers' potent backcourt, and there is every reason to believe they will cruise to the second round, for a rematch with the mighty Warriors.
No one outside this joyous locker room would give the Clippers a chance against the Warriors. But they might make it interesting. (And who knows, maybe Stephen Curry will twist an ankle or a knee along the way?)
The Clippers—perennial contender, perennial disappointment—are in this fleeting moment still in the conversation. They believe.
If you hang around long enough, you start to understand it. Bleacher Report tagged along for 12 days, from just before the Clippers' playoff opener in L.A. through their painful Game 4 in Portland.
It's 10:05 a.m. on April 18 at the Starbucks down the road from the Clippers' training center, and Crawford—known to the barista as "Jay"—is sipping a hot chocolate (he doesn't drink coffee) and ruminating on playoff collapses.
There was 2013, when the Clippers went up 2-0 on the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, then lost the next four games.
There was 2014, when the Clippers, tied 2-2 with Oklahoma City in the conference semis, blew a seven-point lead in the final 45 seconds of Game 5, leading to their ouster in Game 6.
And there was, most infamously, 2015, when the Clippers held a 3-1 lead over Houston in the conference semis and lost their next three games—blowing a 19-point lead in the final 14:15 of Game 6.
"The last three years have been, like, so dramatic," Crawford says. "It's like, we have to graduate now."
The next day, the 36-year-old Crawford will win the Sixth Man of the Year Award, his third. Reliably candid and amiable, Crawford was also honored by the L.A. beat writers for being consistently great with the media.
Crawford habitually starts sentences with the word "honestly," and it never fails to sound earnest. He's also an irrepressible optimist, which, when you think about it, is the most critical trait for a volume scorer. The basket is always half-full. The next shot is always going down.
Those playoff collapses, when stacked together, seem damning, painting the portrait of a Clippers team that buckles under pressure. But there's a context to each defeat, as Crawford is quick to point out.
That 2013 loss to Memphis? Griffin badly sprained his ankle on the eve of Game 5, leaving him gimpy the rest of the series. He played 34 minutes over the final two games.
That 2014 collapse against Oklahoma? It came two weeks after the revelation of racist statements by team owner Donald Sterling—an incident that rocked the franchise and left everyone emotionally drained.
And last year? Well, the Clippers are still trying to explain last year. They know they should have beaten the Rockets, regardless of circumstances. But about those circumstances: Paul missed the first two games of the series after injuring his hamstring in the first round. And the Clippers, lacking much depth, were simply exhausted from that seven-game fight.
So while fans and pundits see a fragile team, Crawford insists, "I don't think that doubt ever crept in."
And while outsiders see a talented team that simply can't hang with the big boys, Crawford gently notes, "The last two champions…we put both of them out of the playoffs the last two years."
Indeed, the Clippers not only ousted the defending champion Spurs last year in a dramatic Game 7 victory, but they're also the last team to have taken a series from the Warriors—in the first round in 2014.
"So we're not that far away," Crawford says. "We feel like we can play with anybody."
That first-round takedown of San Antonio should probably get more notice than it does in this discussion of Clippers playoff fortitude and Clippers psychoanalysis and Clippers resilience.
So should this fact: The Clippers went 30-15 while Griffin—their leading scorer and second-best playmaker—recovered from a partially torn quadriceps. They finished with 53 wins, the sixth-best mark in the league, and might have gone for 60 had Griffin never gone down.
However the season ends, Crawford understands it will be remembered for a different Griffin narrative: The one in which Griffin punched Matias Testi, an assistant equipment manager, after a late-night argument at a Toronto restaurant. The punch resulted in a broken hand, a four-game suspension and endless humiliation for everyone involved.
The incident only underscored all of the worst perceptions of the Clippers: That they are immature, combustible, unreliable. That their chemistry is suspect.
If anyone knows poor chemistry and controversy, it's Crawford. He started his career in Chicago, in the woeful post-Michael Jordan era; played four-plus years in New York at the height of the Stephon Marbury-Isiah Thomas psychodrama; and spent one ill-fated season in Portland, the year the team turned on coach Nate McMillan.
"I've had some doozies," he says.
Whatever the Clippers are, they are not that. By all accounts and appearances, the Clippers long ago put the Griffin incident behind them, framing it (as benignly as possible) as a family squabble. Testi is still working for the Clippers, still friends with Griffin. If there is any lingering resentment here, it's hard to detect.
"It's really like a family," Crawford says. "From the kids being in the locker room, to us arguing, to us being there for each other. ... There's going to be ups and downs, but we know we're each other's families. No matter what, through everything, we'll remain that."
After victories, the Clippers race to the locker room and form two lines at the door; the last one in has to dance. After losses, they still form those two lines; no one sits until the last man has returned.
"It matters," Crawford says. "Because if you care about a person off the court, you'll run through a wall for them on the court."
It's mid-morning on April 22 at the Clippers' training center in Playa Vista, where the first signs of life are the wild rabbits and lizards scurrying across the parking lot.
Paul Pierce pulls in around 10:05. Most mornings, he's the first on the court, warming up and going through his shooting routine. Today he's here early to get a haircut.
The Clippers are 2-0, having used a robust bench performance to rout the Blazers again. Pierce was not part of the effort, getting the first "did not play—coach's decision" of his storied playoff career.
He was edgy on his way out of the arena that night, and still a little grim this morning in the gym, where Prince's "Purple Rain" soundtrack is playing over the stereo system.
Prince's death, one day earlier, hit hard at home. Julie Pierce, Paul's wife, is a huge fan and had seen the artist in concert multiple times. They named their son, born in 2013, Prince Paul Pierce.
"She was devastated," Pierce says.
It's been a discomfiting ride for Pierce since signing here last summer, reuniting with Rivers, with whom he won a championship in Boston in 2008. The Clippers wanted Pierce for his clutch shooting, his toughness and his leadership. But his playing time has waned. That happens to 38-year-olds in the NBA.
"I was hoping I could contribute more on the court," he says quietly, sitting in a folding chair at the edge of the practice court.
If ever a team needed a bit of Pierce's bravado, it's the Clippers, the saddest franchise in modern NBA history. In their first 33 years in Southern California, the Clippers made the playoffs just four times, winning one series.
Their fate began to change in 2009, when they won the draft lottery and the right to select Griffin, the high-flying power forward from Oklahoma. The Clippers' placard and winning lottery balls from that night—5, 3, 6, 10—hold the most prominent spot in the trophy case at the team's training center.
The second-biggest victory in franchise lore came in 2011, when then-commissioner David Stern—acting as steward of the financially flagging New Orleans Hornets—vetoed a trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers, paving the way for Paul's eventual arrival in Playa Vista.
The Clippers have made the playoffs every year since then—by far the best era in their history—yet every failure feels like an extension of a decades-long curse. "Same old Clippers" is a common refrain among local pundits when things go awry.
Even as dark-horse contenders, the Clippers fail to gain respect.
"From afar, the last few years, the Clippers have always been labeled as soft, Hollywood, front-runners," Pierce says. "They always got the talent, got the talent to win it all, but that's how the other teams view it. Every team got a certain type of identity. That's sort of like their identity."
It was Pierce who instituted the dance-off after victories, and the rule that everyone stands until the last man returns to the locker room.
"Just a way to bring guys together," he says.
The Clippers are two wins away from the second round, and a likely rematch with the Warriors—the 73-win Warriors—who haven't lost twice to any team in a year. Beat them four times in seven games? It sounds like an impossibility.
"I've always been one that wanted the biggest challenges," Pierce says. "I wanted them to get 73 wins, so we have an opportunity to play them and ruin their season. I hope everyone else feels the same way in this locker room—to say, 'Look, we're going to be that team that put the Golden State Warriors out of the playoffs.'"
There's the bravado the Clippers were seeking, the swagger they so sorely needed. To paraphrase Pierce, circa 2014: That's why they brought him here.
It's 2:02 p.m. on April 24, and Redick is moving gingerly through the sixth-floor lounge at The Nines hotel in downtown Portland. Several teammates are heading to the arena for a voluntary off-day workout, but Redick needs to stay off his bruised heel as much as possible.
"Walking puts pressure on it, so it's not like it's getting better every day," he says after sinking into a plush lounge chair.
Redick is an elite shooter and a classic gym rat with a strict daily routine, and the inactivity is driving him nuts.
"If I could lay in bed for two weeks, it would heal," he says. "I can't lay in bed for two weeks."
So he presses on.
Last night, Redick went 2-of-10 from the field—the worst playoff performance of his career in a game with at least 10 shot attempts. Griffin also struggled, and the Clippers took a 96-88 loss. It's become clear that Griffin—who returned from his quad injury two weeks before the playoffs—is not quite right.
The Clippers are still in control of the series, 2-1, but just shaky enough that fans could be forgiven if they started to feel a sense of dread. The ghosts of playoff collapses past are never far. Here we go again?
"It's something that probably lurks at the subconscious level at all times," Redick says. "It's lurking. Even now, you can't really watch a Houston Rockets game and not think to yourself, 'Man, we really blew that.' I'd be lying to not say it's there. But it's not something that is discussed."
The day after their elimination by Houston last spring, Redick and Paul hit the golf course, to unwind and process it all. The round took six hours, and they never did finish.
"We just talked," Redick says. "We'd sit there and look at our balls and just sit on the cart and discuss things."
Redick's view on the Rockets series? "We let up."
No Clipper is more cognizant of the team's sad-sack image than Redick, a self-styled media junkie who reads everything and hosts his own podcast.
Redick has heard every Clippers diagnosis: They need an elite wing player. They need a stretch 4. They need a heart transplant. Or maybe they need a breakup.
These are conversations the players have, too, but Redick is not convinced there's anything fundamentally wrong or missing. Chemistry? Sure, that could use some work.
"We're an odd group," Redick says. "I think we've gotten better there, but if we're being honest we probably still have a ways to go with that. If I was to give a criticism of our team, that would be it—just the chemical makeup, the mental toughness, the togetherness. To be a championship-level team, you have to have those things."
Here's what's often lost in the discussion: Since 2011, when Paul arrived, the Clippers have the third-highest win total (262) in the league, trailing only the Spurs (292) and Thunder (266) and placing them just ahead of the Warriors (261) and Miami Heat (251).
|Most wins in regular season since 2011-12|
|Team||Wins||Playoff bests||Titles won|
|San Antonio||292||2 Finals appearances||1|
|Oklahoma City||266||1 Finals, 2 West finals||0|
|Golden State||261||1 Finals||1|
Of that group, only the Clippers have failed to make the Finals. Are they flawed, or just unlucky?
"For any team, the margin of error is so small," says Redick, who is speaking from experience.
In 2009, Redick was in the nightly rotation for the Orlando Magic team that won the East but lost the championship to the Lakers. They lost Game 2 in overtime, after Courtney Lee blew an alley-oop layup at the regulation buzzer. They lost Game 4, also in overtime, despite holding a five-point lead in the final minute of regulation. Dwight Howard missed two free throws with 11.1 seconds left.
"My point is, there was nothing structurally wrong with that team," Redick says.
Or this one.
"I read a lot of stuff: 'Well, let's blow it up.' But why? But why?" he says. "You still got guys that are producing and are still in the prime of their careers. If it doesn't happen this year, I don't know what happens this summer. I don't. And I don't know if there's an easy solution to anything. But I don't buy that there's something fundamentally or structurally wrong with our team."
Paul's demanding personality can grate on teammates, and Griffin's immaturity has been a concern. But Redick calls his Clippers tenure the best years of his career, primarily because of the friendships built.
As for Griffin's punch of Testi, "We've all done stupid stuff," Redick says, citing his own DUI arrest just before the 2006 draft. "These things pass. Blake's personality, us being used to him, it wasn't ever going to be anything that was lingering, at least from my perspective."
"It's weird, don't get me wrong," Redick adds. "It's weird."
The Warriors and Spurs are the modern benchmarks for chemical brilliance. The Clippers aren't there, but Redick says they're getting closer.
"I do know, and I firmly believe this, that we can win a championship," he says. "I do believe that."
It's 3:30 p.m., a gray, drizzly afternoon in Portland a day before Game 4, and Doc Rivers is tucked into a corner booth at a corner tavern a block away from the team hotel. The TV overhead is tuned to the Celtics-Hawks game.
Rivers played eight seasons for the Hawks, alongside Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb, at one point stringing together four straight 50-win seasons without ever advancing past the second round of the playoffs.
"So I've lived that," Rivers says. "We never could break through."
Now it's the Warriors and Spurs and Thunder.
It was Rivers who seemed to put an egg timer on this Clippers team before the season, telling Grantland, "I'm a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don't win. It just doesn't work. We're right at the edge."
Six-and-a-half months later, Rivers is stepping back from that ledge.
No, this wasn't an ideal season. Griffin's prolonged absence scuttled the staff's plans to develop an effective small-ball lineup with Griffin at center. Offseason gambles on Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson fell flat.
But the Clippers did find an effective second unit, with Cole Aldrich blossoming as the backup center alongside Crawford, Rivers, Wes Johnson and midseason pickup Jeff Green.
All the Clippers need now is a little good health and good fortune.
When a team grows stale, Rivers says, "You can see it, you can feel it. I don't feel that way with our team yet."
Griffin is 27, Jordan turns 28 in July and Paul turns 31 this week. There is time yet for a breakthrough—in proficiency, maturity, chemistry and the playoff bracket. Rivers refers to the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder as "huge objects in front of us," but adds, "I don't believe we can't beat them."
This has been Rivers' mission since taking the dual role of front-office executive and head coach in 2013: instilling belief.
His first edict was to cover the Lakers' championship banners with Clippers banners for home games at Staples Center, over the nervous objections of other team officials.
"It was like it was sacrilegious," Rivers says. "They're just scared of them."
Rivers also wanted to build a historical framework, by retiring some jerseys—only to realize the best players to wear the Clippers uniform always had their best years elsewhere.
"No one stayed long enough," he says.
If the Clippers are going to create a legacy, a history, a culture, they need some permanence in their identity.
The temptation to break up the core is clear, though. The Clippers have played well without Griffin, well enough to wonder if they might be better off swapping him for multiple rotation players and replacing him with a three-point shooting forward to adapt to the new NBA.
Rumblings of a potential Griffin-for-Carmelo Anthony trade are already circulating.
Yet the Spurs are still thriving with a traditional "big" lineup, Rivers is quick to note, and many teams have stumbled trying to mimic the Warriors' small-ball model.
"We're a big, athletic team," he says. "You can't give that away. I think teams make a mistake when they try to be Golden State."
Besides, a healthy Griffin, playing as a ball-handling, playmaking center, might be the Clippers' best chance in an eventual series against the Warriors.
The league will be flush with salary-cap room this summer, making trades of superstars and their "max" salaries easier than ever. Anything could happen, but in this moment, Rivers is making a case for continuity.
"I believe in them," he says. "But we gotta see it."
On the walk back to the hotel, a middle-aged couple recognizes Rivers. They ask for a hug and a photo, and he graciously obliges.
It's April 25, and Rivers is addressing the media before tipoff of Game 4 at the Moda Center. The news of the day is that Warriors star Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP, is out at least two weeks because of a sprained knee. It means Curry will miss the start of the second round, maybe more.
No one celebrates an injury, but it's hard not to see this as a break for the Clippers in their expected second-round matchup. A reporter asks Rivers if he's done the math on Curry's timeline and what it might mean.
"It's pretty easy for me not to do the math," Rivers says curtly.
On the court, Redick is going through his shooting routine while Prince's "When Doves Cry" plays over the arena sound system. Before leaving the court, he stretches both calves on the basket stanchion.
It's midway through the third quarter when Paul awkwardly snags his right hand on the back of Gerald Henderson's jersey, snapping the third metacarpal. The game clock reads 6:07 when he leaves the court, kicking a seat cushion on the way out.
Griffin is rubbing his left leg, and soon he will be gone, too.
Booming chants of "Beat L.A.!" fill the air, and the eager Blazers meet the challenge, pulling away for a 98-84 victory to tie the series.
It's 10:14 p.m. when the Clippers stoically file back into the locker room, the silence broken by a one-word outburst.
"F--k!" Redick bellows, his jersey already off. A public relations official quickly closes the door between the press room and the hallway.
Twenty minutes later, Pierce strides silently, expressionless toward the team bus. General manager Dave Wohl is not far behind. One by one, the Clippers shuffle away, ashen-faced, numb.
"More shock," Crawford says, stopping briefly. "You can add this to the list. It doesn't feel real, to be honest with you."
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For all they'd been through to this point, the Clippers had maintained a veneer of stubborn confidence, of defiance.
"I don't think like, 'If we don't win it,'" Paul had told Bleacher Report two days earlier. "I'm just different in that regard. I feel like I've never played an NBA season, going into the season, not thinking that we're going to win the championship."
At 10:37 p.m., Paul finally emerges, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat, his right hand in a cast, poking through a dark sling. He says nothing. At the loading dock, Paul hugs his brother and his father, then disappears through the exit.
The Clippers' season is not yet over, not officially. But they already know how it ends.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11 am-1 pm ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.