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The Clippers put the ‘bubble talk’ behind them

Whatever their faults, this was a mentally tough team.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

With 16 minutes left in their season, the Clippers were reeling. The Suns were blazing past them, be it in transition and in the half court, building a 17-point lead as they eyed their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1993.

It would have been an easy moment to pack it in, to let the inevitable happen. But doing that wouldn’t have been true to this particular Clippers team.

Their season on the line, the Clippers threw out a lineup of Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Nic Batum, Marcus Morris Sr., and DeMarcus Cousins — a five-man grouping that no one thought would decide the fate of this season because they had never played together. But they figured something out.

Cousins posted up, drew help, and hit Batum for an easy finish at the rim. George drove baseline to earn two free throws. Batum hit two threes. Cousins swatted a Cameron Payne lay-up attempt. Before you knew it, the Clippers had put together a 10-0 run to pull within seven.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers
The Clippers were at their best with their backs against the wall all postseason, and they tried to deliver again with one final push in Game 6.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

It wouldn’t last. It was Chris Paul’s day, after all. But that stretch was a reminder of the heart and the grit that defined this team all season, but especially during the playoffs. Through injuries, through tough losses, the Clippers stayed together and played to the best of their ability when the stakes were at their highest.

“I thought this team squeezed everything we could out of what we had,” George said after the game. “We squeezed everything out of one another, and I thought we got stronger and better as the season went on.”

That improvement was something that couldn’t be said about the 2019-20 Clippers. That team shrunk under pressure and collapsed by the end of the year, finding new ways to fail with every passing game. Their exit from the postseason put such a stain on the franchise that nothing this team did during the regular season could clear the memory.

But while the outside world waited for the start of the playoffs to see what the Clippers were really made of, those in the know saw this team’s heart from the very beginning.

They stomped on the Lakers on their ring night and then went into Denver on Christmas Day and exacted some measure of vengeance for the playoff defeat a few months earlier. After losing by 51 points to Dallas, they dusted themselves off and won the next two games anyway.

Without Kawhi Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley, they went into Atlanta and hung with the Eastern Conference finalists until the final minute. Two days, they went into Miami and beat the defending conference champs with the same skeleton crew, and they would beat the Hawks in their next meeting despite by trailing by 22 in the third quarter.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Detroit Pistons
Being a few men down was never a death sentence for the Clippers, not in the regular season and not in the playoffs.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Think about all the games the Clippers won while missing at least three starters. San Antonio, Detroit, Memphis, Portland — all of them were swept away by the Canoes.

And then when the national media finally started paying attention to the Clippers in the postseason, they showed their spirit on the NBA’s biggest stage. They came back against Dallas, scrapping their starting lineup and excising two rotation players in the process. They came back against Utah, evening the series by going small yet again.

When the Clippers were dealt their worst hand of the year, a season-ending injury to Leonard, they responded with two of their finest performances of the season: a win in Utah when the Jazz could not miss from three in the first half, and a 25-point comeback to advance to the franchise’s first conference finals.

The Clippers weren’t done yet. They took two from the Suns and were in position to take a couple more. After their two toughest defeats — the valley-oop in Game 2 and the offensive implosion in Game 4 — the Clippers responded with 14-point wins each time, showing resolve time and time again.

Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns - Game Five
Paul George went into Phoenix down 3-1, without Kawhi, Serge, and Zu, and had the game of his life.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“Being down 0-2 against Dallas, fighting back and competing to win that series. Being down 0-2 against Utah, doing the same thing. Our team showed a lot of character,” Ty Lue said. “We’re down. We can easily give up and give in. But we just stick with the game plan, don’t point fingers, we stay together, and that was just good for me to see that this year. When I think back to this season, I’ll think back to the playoff run we had, and being down in the series both those first two and fighting back and winning those. What we did this year was special.”

“Very proud of my guys, what we had to overcome throughout the year,” George added. “We found a way to fight through. We found a way to keep going, keep playing. We just had each other’s backs all year. One of the greatest locker rooms I’ve been a part of.”

The Clippers said all year that last year was in the past, that they weren’t the same team as the one that flamed out in the bubble. When they had a chance to prove it, they did. Whatever shortcomings they had in this year’s playoff run weren’t a result of their team character or their mental fortitude. They played hard the whole way through, but just ran out of gas.

Even in defeat, it’s hard not to be proud of these Clippers. It took until the final game of the postseason for them to be blown out (their only other double-digit loss was by 10 in the playoff opener) because they simply never gave up. No matter the circumstances, this Clippers team always believed it could win. That hasn’t been the case watching the Clippers in the past, but things changed this year.

“The season that we had, and being able to do something this organization has never done, and I think forgetting and getting rid of all that bubble talk and all that bubble stuff is over. To do what we did this year was very special,” Lue said. “Just taking that next step of erasing the bubble, the talk of ‘can we perform, can we get to the next step’. Those guys have done that. Not happy that we finished short, but we are happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish this season.”

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