Last night, the Clippers lost Game 4 in Portland, bringing the series back to Los Angeles tied 2-2. While many agreed that a game 4 win was critical for L.A.'s chances of wrapping this first-round series up early and getting a head-start on the Golden State Warriors in the second round, heading into a best-of-3 series with homecourt is hardly a death sentence for a Clippers squad that's been through plenty of long and trying first-round series.
Of course, as you all know by now, that would be a dream world compared to reality. Not only will the Clippers head home tied 2-2 with the fifth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, but they'll do so riddled with injuries: J.J. Redick's heel has grown worse and continues to plague him, Blake Griffin's quad is acting up, leaving him questionable for game 5, and Chris Paul broke his hand in game 4, likely keeping him out for the series and entire post-season. It's hard to keep track as the disappointments mount on this Clippers franchise, but for me, last night ranks as the worst night in Clippers history. I know that the series isn't over, and the injury news isn't final, but the future is all very real to me now: a future where the Clippers lose in this round, and then blow up the core that I love in an attempt at a quick fix. A future where I watch a Frankenstein team that I don't care about be just as unsuccessful in a championship hunt as this current group, without the enjoyment of watching a roster that I have a deep attachment to accomplish the small goals. I can see a future where for the rest of my life I look back on this game, and that flukey hand injury, as the reason why Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, four of my favorite Clippers ever, never broke through to the Western Conference Finals. In past years, the Clippers have straight-up lost games to better teams, they've been outworked by hungrier teams, and they've lost games they should have won in agonizing fashion. This year? It feels like it's all going away just because of bad luck, and as a fan of a franchise that's no stranger to bad luck, it's the worst feeling in the world.
I probably didn't have to go into that sort of detail, because based off of my interactions on twitter and in the comments, that's the vibe that a lot of Clippers fans are feeling right now. In the hours after the game went final, I found myself unable to focus on much else, and unable to put this turn of events into a long-term positive perspective. Last year, when the Clippers were on the verge of elimination, I preached process over results, discussing culture and growth over the random luck of Josh Smith hitting a bunch of threes. This year, it's hard to make the same argument. Can an organization make great claims about their culture and growth when their training staff is developing a notorious reputation among players for mis-handling injuries? Most notably, they reached this point by actually making Blake Griffin's quad worse, so that he had to miss three months this season just to get back to the original injury, which he is now playing through on a "pain management" basis. Can an organization really preach culture and growth after five years of stagnation, consistent playoff failures doomed by infuriating excuses about not taking their opponents seriously? How much baggage can a core accumulate before a fresh start is needed? How many playoff embarrassments, or season-crippling injuries? How much front office mismanagement?
The general perception around NBA media this season is that it was do-or-die time for the Clippers. If they didn't make strides this year, the current core would need to be blown up. Of course, this was melodramatic, and as Griffin's three-month absence ensured that the Clips would find themselves in the four-seed with a second-round match-up against historically great Golden State, the pressure eased off of LAC. They couldn't reasonably be called "failures" for losing to the best team in NBA history, so that series would be played with house money. Now, however circumstances have shifted. Steph Curry will miss at least a few games of the second round with an MCL sprain, seemingly opening the door for the Clippers to actually make a run at their first Western Conference Finals appearance. However, just hours after the Curry news dropped, Chris Paul broke his hand in a game 4 that wasn't looking good for the Clippers anyway. So now what? Do the Clippers get a pass if they lose to Portland in 6? Do they still need to advance, but they they're fine even if they lose to the Steph-less Warriors?
In a vacuum it's easy to forgive a season lost to injuries. In the context of this core's history, another post-season lost to injuries becomes too much baggage to handle. A golden opportunity at a long run spoiled by training staff mistakes and bad injury luck. Last year it was the front office's inability to construct a roster with more than seven NBA-caliber players, causing increased workload, injuries, and fatigue on the main stars. Every year, there have been injuries and other unfortunate, easily explained-away events surrounding the Clippers' playoff exit.
This year, they'll need to take that blow on the chin and keep fighting if they want to keep this core together. The entire roster will need to step up and take on Chris Paul's competitive persona since he won't be able to be on the court leading them. They'll need to win two games against Portland without him, and then they'll need to do their best to keep their heads above water against the Warriors with both teams missing their offensive catalysts. If all goes well and the fracture is relatively minor, Paul's could return to the lineup at some point in the second round, where he'll join his teammates for the slugfest.
There is still a path forward for the Clippers, but it just got a lot harder. They'll need guys to step up, they'll need some luck on injury recovery, and they'll need to overcome the depressed feeling of losing their leader to a broken hand.
It doesn't matter who is hurt, and it doesn't matter who has to step up. For this core to stay together, this team needs to start by winning on Wednesday.
Stay strong, Clips Nation.