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Clippings: Where did it all go wrong?

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NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After a season that ended in such a spectacularly awful manner, it’s natural to want to look back to see where the fissures were in the Clippers this season. Surely, there was something we overlooked that would have foretold what was to come.

There were a lot of highs this season, starting with the opening night win over the Lakers and the subsequent win on Christmas. The dominant theme in those games, and throughout much of the regular season (even the All-Star Game!), was that Kawhi Leonard was going to be the best player on the court in big moments, just as he was in the Finals a year ago.

The Clippers ended the pre-hiatus portion of the season on their best streak of the year. winning eight of the last nine and absolutely clobbering two of their primary Western Conference rivals, Houston and Denver. They then attacked the shutdown more proactively than any other team in the league, and Leonard and Paul George spent some time together at his place in San Diego during that time to develop their bond.

The team looked better than just about anyone else in Orlando — except for maybe the Phoenix Suns — through the seeding games, despite being without Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams for long stretches, and continuing to rest Leonard and George intermittently. Their performance against Dallas in the first round, one Luka Doncic buzzer-beater notwithstanding, suggested that this was a team that had finally coalesced together and was ready for the postseason crucible.

But they weren’t. The pressure of advancing to the Western Conference Finals caused the Clippers to crumble, and the players ended the season by lamenting their lack of chemistry. It’s reductive to believe that one moment could augur a sense of doom for the rest of the season, but I keep coming back to one comment in January.

Montrezl Harrell made waves after a loss to Memphis when he said the Clippers were not a great team, but the more interesting comment, at least from my perspective, was when Doc Rivers followed that up the next day by denouncing all comparisons of this year’s team to last year’s.

“Everyone mentions last year — I don’t,” Rivers said before a game against the Knicks on Jan. 5. “What I know about last year, we were the 8th seed, we were 19th in defense and we lost in the first round. I just will reject that that was such a great year.... I hate using that as a benchmark. And that’s all I keep telling our guys. It’s frustrating as hell to me. Like, everyone brings it up. It’s not a benchmark. That’s a losing organization. Crap. Like, last year’s your benchmark? No, I reject that. And that’s what I tell our guys every day.”

Perhaps Rivers had a point about not using the team’s overall success in 2018-19 as a measuring stick, but the joy that team brought to the court every game was certainly great. Their resilience and their ability to come together so soon after dramatically overhauling the team at the trade deadline were certainly great.

The 2018-19 team was absolutely a benchmark for team chemistry. The way that team played with and for one another is something this current iteration should have built on.

More news for Thursday:

And now, some Clippers post-mortem content: