Give these Clippers credit: as in years past, they didn't roll over in the face of heartbreak and long odds. They held their ground and competed, even when it was clear that they were probably outmatched. And for three quarters, it looked like that that might not be the case, that this ragtag bunch of misfits just might have enough moxie and scrappiness to pull it out.
But their opponent thrived on moxie and scrappiness all season wrong, and in the fourth quarter they flexed their newfound talent advantage too. Lillard and McCollum caught fire, and the Clippers' shots wouldn't fall. Unable to keep up with the younger, perkier Trail Blazers, Los Angeles now falls into a 3-2 hole and seems headed for elimination Friday night in what's sure to be a packed Rose Garden.
The Clippers hung on a lot longer than early signs seemed to suggest. Without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Doc Rivers was forced to bench Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as well, inserting Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Paul Pierce into the three empty starter slots. Then DeAndre Jordan picked up two fouls within the first six minutes, heading to the bench early as the Clippers started to fall behind.
Instead of resigning themselves to a blowout, the scraps of the Clips scrapped their way right back into the game, eventually taking the lead again early in the second quarter after a pair of thunderous Austin Rivers dunks. Their defense picked up, aided by another cold shooting night for Portland, and players like Jeff Green and DeAndre inserted themselves into the action. Green added in a few dunks of his own, and the Clippers would go on to lead by as much as 8 late in the second quarter before finishing the half up 50-45.
The game started to slip away in the third quarter, with Los Angeles going scoreless over the first five and a half minutes while Portland embarked on a 13-0 run spanning halftime. For the fourth consecutive game, Mason Plumlee made his influence felt on the floor, converting a number of extremely difficult plays, including a desperate bullet pass to Gerald Henderson for a fading mid-air bank shot at the shot clock buzzer.
Even down 71-62 late in the third quarter, the Clippers refused to fold, going on a 9-0 run led by Jamal Crawford and Green to equalize the game heading into the fourth. But there, their shots once again refused to fall, the looks stagnated, the defense began to crack, and the floodgates opened for Portland, who shot 6-12 from three in the final frame. Lillard, who had been mostly contained this series, erupted at last in Staples Center, sending in a number of difficult makes and wild banked three-pointers to seal the game and quite possibly the series.
There was hope going into this game that the Clippers could channel the same energy they found in wacky late-season performances in Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City; unlike those efforts, the shots didn't fall tonight and they weren't able to play well above their pay grade in a game with more than just pride riding on the line. Jamal Crawford was miserable from the field, stepping into one terrible midrange look after another that the Portland defense eagerly surrendered to his trigger-happy hands. And if it wasn't apparent already, Playoff Paul Pierce is nothing but myth-smoke from a land where the sun rises over the ocean, with brighter days on the horizon.
Now the Clippers have to circle the wagons in Portland for one final hurrah, one final stand to end a season that has seen them perhaps more frequently waylaid and imperiled than the pioneers on the actual Oregon Trail. They won't have the chance to go out on their own terms, but at least we know they'll be able to leave with their heads held high, knowing that despite all adversity, they still competed.