The stars aligned, the best of everything coming. For so long, the core of these Clippers made championship contention an inevitability.
And yet, the inevitability feels like something else now; like the end of an era that never truly was. The Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers 96-92 on Tuesday night at Staples Center, moving within a victory of advancing into the Western Conference semifinals.
As Jamal Crawford stood outside the Clippers’ locker room, his coach walked past, slapped his shoulder and tried to sound hopeful: “We’ll get it,” Doc Rivers said.
“Yes sir,” Crawford responded.
For the Clippers, this is dire. Without Griffin on the court, the Jazz are a better team. With Griffin, the Clippers might have lost, too. The Jazz are deeper, better connected and ferociously determined. If this feels like the end for the Clippers, it is truly the beginning for the Jazz.
“We have the formula to play without Blake,” Crawford told The Vertical. “We’ve done it.”
When you start to ask Crawford a question about the togetherness of the team, and say, “If the group isn’t solid, this is where …” Crawford finishes the thought for you. ” … It can come apart.”
“But I think we’re solid,” Crawford told The Vertical. “We were down 2-1 to the Spurs and had to go get a win a couple years ago, and we were down 3-2 and had to go get a win. And we did that. Most of our core guys were in those battles. For us, we can really lean on that.”
The Clippers never wanted to be the “What if?” team, but they’re on the brink now. As soon as they’re eliminated in the playoffs, they’ll have to start making hard decisions on the future. To think the Clippers can watch Griffin get hurt again, lose in the first round and simply bring back everyone to incur a historic payroll and luxury-tax bill isn’t realistic. Just because Clippers owner Steve Ballmer can afford to pay that immense repeater tax doesn’t make it sensible.
The Clippers will start to ask themselves the hard questions: Does five more years of Griffin at a max salary make sense, or does maybe two years of Carmelo Anthony become an option? If Paul starts to take free-agent meetings on July 1 and the franchise needs free-agent guard JJ Redick to wait until Paul makes a decision before it can extend an offer, does Redick simply move on, accept an annual salary in the $17 million-to-$20 million range elsewhere before the salary-cap space dries up on the market?
If the Clippers can’t come back on the Jazz, it is extremely unlikely there will be a management upheaval. What there will be is this: an orderly, exhaustive process on the next steps, because these are a complicated crossroads.
Between now and Game 6, the Clippers are trying to push back on summer, push the season to a Game 7 on Sunday at Staples Center. They’re holding onto hope from two years ago, from the Spurs series, but that feels like a reach right now. Blake Griffin is gone for the season, and the Clippers are wobbly, vulnerable and walking into trouble on Friday night, walking into the end of something.