Series slipping through Clippers' grip

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Los Angeles Clippers could view Game 6 as an opportunity, if they choose. It's an opportunity to win in San Antonio and bring the series back to L.A. for Game 7. It's an opportunity to erase and atone for their mistakes throughout the playoffs. The only problem with that approach? The Clippers have been abysmal when handed opportunities over course of the series.

They began the playoffs with the prospect of needing only to win at home in order to advance to the second round, yet they've blown two of the three games in Staples Center. Not just lost -- blown. In Game 2,they had a two-point lead and possession of the ball in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter and couldn't deliver a victory. In the final five seconds of Game 5, a Blake Griffin shot appeared to be on its way through the basket when DeAndre Jordan interfered with it to nullify their go-ahead try.

And those are just the most dramatic moments. Outside of the Spurs' complete domination in Game 3, the Clipper losses have been built on sequences of missed chances that have slowly piled up like the cards to the right of a casino dealer, mounting until the deck is done.

It's not as if the Spurs are an infallible machine. The Clippers have a higher field goal percentage in the series. They had fewer turnovers than the Spurs in Game 5. And yet ...

"It ain't about the stats," Chris Paul said. "We've got to be able to execute better, play better down the stretch."

The details matter so much at this stage. Paul couldn't handle the ball cleanly on one Clipper possession in Game 5, so he passed to Matt Barnes, who mishandled it. The ball went inside to Griffin, who lost control and barely managed to throw it out to Jamal Crawford, who at that point had no choice but to rush a 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired. It was a wasted trip down the court, not because of the Spurs' defensive prowess but because of the Clippers' inefficiency, and an example of why the Spurs are winning the close contests.

That's not to say that the Spurs don't force mistakes and deny good looks. Their most commendable and underappreciated aspect has been their transition defense, the hustle back to challenge shots at the rim or contest 3-pointers on the secondary break. Momentary openings of light become engulfed by a wave of black San Antonio jerseys.

What will the Clipper mindset be going into Game 6? After sitting silently for the first 15 minutes that reporters were allowed in the locker room following Game 5, Jordan got up, trudged to the showers, returned, dressed and offered a small peek inside his mental state.

"We've just got to go win a basketball game," Jordan said. "We can't put too much pressure on ourselves. Even if we would have won tonight, we would have liked to win [in San Antonio]. We're in the same situation that we would have been in. It's going to be a little tougher, that's all."

Two illusions are apparent: that the situation would have been the same had they won Game 5, and that the task would have been easier. Wouldn't the Spurs play with more desperation if their season -- and possibly even their time together -- were at stake? As robotic as the Spurs appear at times, Gregg Popovich is the first to cite human nature as the basis for his team's ebbs and flows.

It's tougher to project the mental approach of the Clippers. Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Crawford have been through almost every playoff possibility during their time together in Los Angeles. They have overcome double-digit deficits in the fourth quarter. They have won a Game 7 on the road (something that happens twice every 10 times) and blown a 2-0 series lead (something that happens only once every 10 times).

They've been through enough to know what determines playoff outcomes. And apparently they still need to be reminded.

"Doc tells us all the time it comes down to single possessions," Paul said. "You can look at all these different types of plays throughout the game and see where we lost it."

In other words, you can count the opportunities.