There are no moral victories in the playoffs. Win or go home. Losing means the season is over. Alas, that was the case tonight. The Clippers' depleted roster was probably not supposed to have a chance tonight. On the road and without its two best players, the Clippers' roster was closer to being a lottery team than a playoff team (in the Western Conference). Nevertheless, the Clippers scrapped against the Trail Blazers and produced an exciting game that seesawed throughout the game. The game witnessed about the same amount of lead changes as the entire series had seen up till tonight.
The game started off fine at first for the Clippers. The defense was doing well (enough) and the offense was finding production. However, everything came to a screeching halt when Austin Rivers suffered a bloody facial injury that removed him from the game until about midway through the second quarter. While this injury was traumatizing for Clippers' fans, given the injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the team continued to fight on. Jamal Crawford picked up the scoring slack and the quarter ended tied at 24 - 24.
Still, the quarter felt underwhelming. Without the Point God the offense was not as fluid and was sustained by consistent shooting. Likewise, the referees did not give the Clippers any favors as the foul calling was as expected: favoring the home team on close calls and tick tack fouls favoring the home team.
The second quarter was much a continuation of the first quarter. Neither team pulled away from the other. Baskets were traded back and forth as Jamal Crawford went supernova for the Clippers offense. By half time Crawford had about half of the points for the Clippers. The Clippers defense was also pretty good to: Portland shot only 4 of 16 from three. Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers also rebounded much better and were able to attempt 51 shots in the first half compared to the Clippers' 35. As such, Portland had 20 made baskets compared to the Clippers' 18 and led at half by two points.
Still, the Clippers showed a promising formula. Only 4 three point shots were attempted (and 2 were made). The offense focused on dribble penetration and the opportunities that followed. Often times Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford got mid range to short range floaters. Other times another player was open and could take the shot. In the end, the Clippers offense was different than its usual form - it ended the first half with only 6 assists and 8 turnovers. It wasn't the kind of team that Clippers's fans were conditioned to seeing, but it was sufficient.
The third quarter was both promising and disappointing. On one hand, the 3 point defense completely evaporated. The Trail Blazers made (I believe) 7 straight three pointers to start the quarter (before missing its last 2 attempts). While this was thankfully the bulk of its offense, it was enough to keep their fans energized and the game close. While Austin Rivers had his turn of being supernova hot offensively, the game continued to swing back and forth. The Clippers only ended the quarter up by 2 points. Given how they had played offensively, it definitely felt as if the Clippers deserved (or needed) to be ahead by more. Unfortunately, when the Clippers were able to push their lead to 5, the Blazers responded with bombardment of 3's to take a 4 point lead. The Clippers however continued to shoot well from the field and kept their focus on 2 point plays. This slow and steady process enabled the Clippers to take the lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Ultimately the Clippers started moving away from its formula. By the end of the second half the Clippers had attempted an additional 12 three point shots. They only made 2 of those second half attempts. That pretty much sums up why the Clippers lost the fourth quarter and the game overall. While Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford shot well enough overall from the field (18-44), their 3 point shooting was terrible (1-9). The duo was 17 of 35 from 2 point range. Unfortunately the Clippers' offensive game plan clearly changed in the second half (and primarily it felt like in the fourth quarter). On one hand, Portland's defense got a bit better as the offensive rebounds were not as plentiful for the Clippers. On the other hand, the Clippers seemed to feel they were getting squeezed by the referees when it came to calls. This may very well have dissuaded/prevented them from continuing their original process of attacking the basket. The frustration became clear towards the end of the game when fouls against the Clippers gave the Trail Blazers some key free throws to help escape the game with a victory.
If one can look past the disappointment of having the season end so early due to injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, there are some positives. A crippled Clippers team almost beat a near full strength Portland Trail Blazers team in Portland. That's a tip of the hat to both the ability of the bench players as well as the coaching staff. A healthy Clippers core would've probably meant a series win against the Trail Blazers.
So what to do with the core? On one hand, the Clippers (and its fan base) will have to deal with the national (and local) media portraying the Clippers team as a one that's doubting whether its currently constructed to win a title. However, I think most of the past four playoffs have been hampered by injuries in the playoffs (not counting the collapse to Houston...but Chris Paul was out for a bit at its start). Whether that's simply bad luck or something that can be "designed" around is a different question than whether the Clippers can win a title as its core is currently constructed. It also remains to be seen what alternatives/options are even available to Doc Rivers and the team this off season.
Until free agency (and trade opportunities) come though, the Clippers now head into the off-season having again fallen short of its goal of winning an NBA title. Unlike last season's heartbreaking and soul shattering collapse, this season ends with a different kind of disappointment and frustration. It's a frustration of unfulfilled promise. This feeling is a familiar one for Clippers' players and fans over the last 4+ years.