Don't Buy Clippers' Excuses for Historic Playoff Collapse vs. Nuggets

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2020

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

For over a full calendar year, since last July's epic free-agency arms race, the NBA's Battle of Los Angeles seemed like a formality.

After the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James, the Clippers landed reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency and swung an out-of-nowhere blockbuster trade for Paul George, forming an instant superteam. 

All summer long and into the season, debate raged in all corners of the basketball world as to which team was better. The Lakers had James and Davis, but the Clippers were adding two All-NBA talents to the team of overachievers that had unexpectedly pushed the Golden State Warriors to six games in last year's playoffs.

So far in the bubble, the Lakers have held up their end of the bargain, easily winning their first two playoff series to reach the Western Conference Finals. But after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night in a disheartening Game 7 loss, the Clippers will not be joining them.

Blowing a 3-1 lead in the playoffs is never fun. Ask the Utah Jazz team that the Nuggets overcame in the same fashion in the first round. But for a team that was specifically built to win a title right now, it's particularly devastating.

"We had championship expectations," Clippers guard Lou Williams said after the game. "We had the talent to do it. We didn't have the chemistry to do it."

The Clippers traded away five future first-round picks to pair George with Leonard, but some members of the team apparently didn't feel as though they had to win a championship this season.

"Internally, we've always felt this isn't a championship-or-bust year for us," George said. "We didn't have enough time together."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Another team that didn't have much time to develop chemistry was the Toronto Raptors squad that Leonard left last July. The Raptors acquired him and Danny Green the previous summer and added starting center Marc Gasol at the trade deadline on their way to winning a title. 

The Lakers team these Clippers were supposed to face in the Western Conference Finals traded almost half of its rotation for Davis last summer and filled in the gaps with veterans on cheap deals. They didn't have years to develop continuity, either. They've also won each of their first two series in the bubble in five games.

George himself had previously said those expectations were there. During an interview back in June with comedian Kevin Hart, he said: "Immediately, we were expected to come in and win it all."

So, which is it?

The answer is a little of both.

Yes, the Clippers mortgaged their future to bring in two superstars who can become free agents following the 2020-21 season. Any outcome other than winning the title, or at least making the Finals, is a disappointment. Not even making the conference finals is a disaster, especially when they led by double digits in three straight elimination games.

But everyone picking them to win this year's title perhaps should have taken their lack of continuity into account.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery and an additional nine games in January with a hamstring issue. Leonard didn't play on back-to-backs all year as part of his extended load-management plan. A key member of their supporting cast, Marcus Morris Sr., came over at the trade deadline, just a month before the COVID-19 shutdown in March.

That stuff matters, especially against a Denver team that's deep, well-coached and knows who they are. Even if they had survived Game 7 against Denver, it likely would have mattered against a Lakers team with a locked-in James and role players who have been clicking throughout the playoffs.

The Clippers thought they could coast on pure talent, which on paper they have more of than any other team in the NBA. But they got complacent all too often and let their opponents hang around.

They could get away with it against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. The Nuggets were a different story.

After Tuesday's loss, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said he felt players missing time during the season restart hurt their conditioning. The Clippers' instances in this regard—including Williams' infamous trip to Magic City—were more high-profile, but a number of teams in the bubble dealt with that problem on some level.

The Nuggets were so shorthanded at the start of training camp at Disney World that they couldn't even conduct five-on-five scrimmages. Nikola Jokic tested positive for COVID-19 in Serbia and was late to arrive. Several other players were late to arrive from Denver after positive tests as well. Guard Gary Harris missed all eight seeding games and most of the first round with a hip injury. They're still without forward Will Barton, who left the bubble to rehab an ongoing knee injury.

It didn't matter. The Nuggets still found a way to get to where they needed to get. And they didn't have the title expectations the Clippers did.

When Clippers players talk about the hardships of the bubble that have affected every team, it sounds like a lot of excuses from a team that should have been better.

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.