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From Villains to Heroes? On the Ever-Changing Clippers Narrative

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The Clippers have a chance to spoil the party, and everyone will want them to. Recent NBA history should warn them of the consequences.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Your Los Angeles Clippers just crapped the bed with a couple of uninspiring performances against Eastern Conference foes missing key pieces. And just like that, the team is right back to where the pundits always thought they’d be out West. Behind the Warriors and a smudge behind the Spurs.

The story changes quickly, doesn’t it?

Power rankings will be filled with the Clippers in a very familiar 4 spot or so. Social media will be loaded with the same “it’s the Clippers!” bits. And we will be caught in between defending our team and just being frustrated that, after such an incredible start, the team has come out very flat in two very winnable games. Such is life, and the Clippers seem to be back in the shadows for the time being.

How bad are the shadows? As Matt Moore recently mentioned, the Clippers might do well as a sleeper team while Golden State continues to sop up the idea of being a historic team. Frankly to me, lurking in the shadows has been a habit for this Clipper team anyways going into the postseason. Maybe what the team needs is the pressure of being a giant killer to keep them from slipping out of form. And a giant killer they can be.

Moore, and a handful of others, enjoyed likening this team to the 2011 Champion Dallas Mavericks. It’s an exciting comparison for Clipper fans, from the years of being good but coming up short, a nationally underappreciated superstar labeled as a choke artist, and a handful of role players with something to prove that eventually knock off a not-quite-ready superteam. It all seems very put together. But the Heat were created on the fly, this Warriors core, for whatever Kevin Durant brings, have years of playing and success together outside of him.

I liken the team moreso to last year’s Oklahoma City Thunder. A team with the talent to make a great run, often hampered by injuries, with superstars on the hook in the upcoming summer. The Thunder, a bit like the Clippers, were not seen as fan favorites in the media, for reasons different than the Clippers. Russell Westbrook and Durant were clueless when dealing with the media (and still are) and came off as brash, even if they did it seemingly in the spirit of competition. The Thunder were also extremely flawed despite their talents, particularly when it came to closing out games. Personally, I always hated watching the Thunder play. Their hero ball turn-taking reminded me of everything that was wrong with basketball, and they were always one of my least favorite teams to watch. Still are.

Despite all the reasons to dislike the Thunder, the country was hyped when they pushed the Warriors to the brink. The Clippers have very publicly accepted the fact that teams/fans (spoiler: your team flops too) don’t like them, and unless they somehow reclaim the number one spot in the West and maintain it, they will likely remain an afterthought if they fall too far behind. The Thunder were a national afterthought as late as Game 5 against the Spurs when they were down 6 with 4 minutes to go. One manic Westbrook run, and the national perception changed about the Thunder. Amidst a furious start against the Warriors, the media finally started looking at the Thunder’s narratives. An energized defensive anchor, an underrated mustachioed defensive role player acquired quietly via trade, a swing defender made into a contributing offensive role player, an instant offense big off the bench, and two superstars who people weren’t sure could quite fit. As a giant killer, the Thunder were seen as a team finally getting what they deserved, with their scary summer looking like a bright future.

Then, poof.

Yeah, it’s scary. But it’s not like the Clippers weren’t similarly inflated to some degree up 3-1 against the Rockets, with the highest championship odds in the league at that moment. This is an absolutely massive season with stakes unlike what those Mavericks faced, but similar to what those Thunder faced. Chris Paul and his teammates seem to constantly insinuate that this team is different, that this team knows what it takes even after a disappointing loss like the one in Detroit. That this team is tired of failure. Paul feels his prime, and he feels its fragility. Blake Griffin is playing with a renewed sense of focus after a lost season. J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan have followed their lead.

The Clippers have been infamous in years past for the wrong reasons. Even their substantial accomplishments have been swept under the rug due to the failures that followed, much like many will forget that the Thunder beat the Spurs after many predicted a San Antonio sweep after one game. The Warriors have a historical amount of talent, and there’s little doubt to me that now that they have that #1 seed, they are very unlikely to let it go. The Clippers, up until this dreadful Paul George-less blowout, seemed more composed than any previous team during the Chris Paul era.

So while I understand why premature frustration after these losses can be annoying to seasoned fans, this team is absolutely under the microscope. Rightfully so. These moments matter, because old habits are tough to break, just ask the Thunder how their inability to close games in the regular season haunted them in a franchise-altering Game 6. For a team trying to reach that elusive ceiling, every part of the process matters.

Just like old habits stick, the Clippers are stuck in a narrative. They dipped out of it to start the season, but will likely be boxed back in if it suits the media. That might be seen as negligible, but I’m not so sure. Narratives are usually overblown but I think pressure will do this team good. I do think the Warriors will finish with the best record in the league, but the longer the Clippers can challenge for it, and hopefully make some space between themselves and the Spurs for the #2 seed, the better. We’ve seen what happens when the Clippers fly under the radar. While the Warriors will be flying high with a doting media, the Clippers would be wise to make sure they’re not too far behind.