LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers won 53 games and closed out the 2015-16 regular season with a top-six offense and top-six defense.
That team no longer exists.
In their place walks a zombified version of the team's former self, a skeleton crew of one-dimensional specialists who best thrive when orbiting two healthy All-Stars. After winning the first two games of the first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles lost three straight, including a pivotal Game 5 on its home floor Wednesday night, 108-98.
The game was competitive until reality set in, when Portland's own right hook-uppercut combination—Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum—turned off-balance and contested jump shots into iron-seeking missiles in the fourth quarter.
But despite L.A.'s brutal second half, and despite knowing Griffin and Paul are out of commission until next fall, the Clippers head into Game 6 on Friday wearing a synthetic sleeve of confidence. They liked what Portland's defense permitted throughout a game they "only" lost by 10 points and, if you listen closely, actually believe they can advance to the next round.
In the biggest game of the year, the offense missed Paul and Griffin's combined influence. They're the most reliable options, a pair of life sources who initiate and produce more positive action than anyone on the team.
Instead of leaning on those two, the Clippers ventured into unprecedented territory, praying foreign lineups would light a spark. It was bitter experimentation, with Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce and Austin Rivers stuffed into a starting lineup beside two holdovers: DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick.
(According to NBAwowy.com, Jordan, Crawford and Redick only played 21 minutes together all season without Paul and/or Griffin by their side.)
Continuity is a precious commodity in the NBA, especially in late April. But right now, this team doesn't have that luxury to lean on, and the loss of familiarity has created a tiny bit of tension.
"Chris always has a great feel of what to call and who hasn't got a shot in a while, and when he should attack and when he shouldn't," Crawford said. "I think that continuity is probably what we miss most."
In other ways, the introduction of a brand-new variable can be a good thing. It spawns unpredictability and an altered defensive mindset.
"They're still very good. They're very talented. … They all can get a bucket, and that makes the game difficult because you don't know who they're going to go to," McCollum said. "You don't know what sets they are going to run.
"Obviously, they're not just throwing the ball in the post, so there's more pick-and-rolls, more dribble handoffs, more one-point downs and 45s and V2s that they run, so we want to make sure that we defend all five positions, we help out on each and every body and make it as difficult as possible."
The Clippers are without their franchise pillars, but that doesn't mean they don't possess talent and experience, above-average coaching and players who can get hot at any time. All they need is to string it together for 48 minutes.
On Wednesday, Redick finished with a team-high 19 points in 34 minutes. The most accurate three-point shooter in the league went 3-of-6 from behind the arc, but he missed several open looks that aren't normally a problem.
Portland stayed consistent with its series/season-long strategy of sagging Jordan's man back into the paint to invite open jumpers, and the Clippers couldn't capitalize.
"I felt like, especially early on, I took some shots that I would love to take again," Redick said. "Jamal, same thing. We missed some shots tonight."
Crawford finished with an atrocious 6-of-23 shooting line, and unsurprisingly, he couldn't agree more. "Honestly, I hope I get the exact same shots," he said. "Those are shots I've made all year. I guess it's one thing if you miss bad shots, but if you get the same shots you normally make, they can go in or not."
Portland head coach Terry Stotts knows his team got a little lucky, too: "I thought we defended [Crawford] well. We were locked in. We contested a lot of his shots. But with a guy who can score the ball like that, you've got to be a little fortunate that he misses some shots, as well."
Crawford found himself on the wrong end of the NBA's notorious "make or miss league" axiom, missing seven of his nine uncontested looks, per SportVU (via NBA.com/Stats). The Sixth Man of the Year is on the floor to create his own shot, and when his signature pull-up jumper isn't falling, the Clippers are in trouble.
But there's reason to believe he won't miss 17 attempts in Game 6. Crawford's play fluctuates, and if he gets hot for just a brief stretch, L.A.'s season could last longer than many expect.
Crawford can't play much worse. That's an optimistic takeaway.
Need another? Jordan is really good! Behind Paul and Griffin, he's the third wheel, a brick wall propped atop two titanium pogo sticks.
Without Paul around in Game 5 to orchestrate one of the league's most devastating pick-and-rolls, Jordan didn't deviate from his stature as one of the best on/off-ball screeners in the league. All night long, he floated around the perimeter to flatten pesky defenders as they tried to shadow Redick and Crawford.
To his credit, Jordan didn't tire or lose focus with this task or any other, all the while knowing a perfectly placed lob from Paul would never come. For at least one night, the free-throw line went from his mortal enemy to a casual acquaintance. He went 6-of-11 from the charity stripe and viciously attacked the rim whenever Mason Plumlee ignored him to clog passing/cutting lanes elsewhere.
On the other end, DJ was all over the place, as the Defensive Player of the Year in a parallel universe where Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green don't exist. He finished with 16 points and 17 rebounds.
"I think [Jordan] makes whoever we're playing against, he always makes them think twice about going in there because even if they get past our guards, he's lurking somewhere," Crawford said. "He probably should get credit for adjusting shots as well, not even the ones he doesn't always get a chance to block."
The Clippers may only have one more game left in their season. It's on the road against a young team with a diabolical backcourt.
But based on the looks the Trail Blazers were willing to give up throughout Game 5, the Clippers still have a decent opportunity to steal Game 6 if their potent perimeter scorers can catch fire.
"I like a lot of the things we did tonight," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. "We'll be better."
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.