The Los Angeles Clippers weren't supposed to have any more excuses for not being able to make it to the Conference finals and possibly beyond. Blake Griffin turned into a legitimate superstar before our eyes this season. Chris Paul dealt with injury a bit, but he was still arguably the third best player in the NBA for most of the season. DeAndre Jordan flourished in his defensive role as the season progressed. They replaced Vinny Del Negro on the sidelines with Doc Rivers. And the depth on this team was championship quality, even if they didn't really have a reliable backup big man in the mix.
But right before their first round, Game 4 match-up with the Golden State Warriors, the racist elephant in the room was caught on tape saying horrible things, and he happened to own the Clippers. It was something that shocked the entire sports world and nearly caused a boycott of playoff games by the players. Rivers and his players had to shake it off, and just go about their business. They did it for the most part, once Adam Silver dropped the lifetime ban on Donald Sterling, but it doesn't mean the pain, frustration, and confusion was shaken away so easily.
It doesn't necessarily give the Clippers an excuse for losing their semifinal series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were better, their stars played better, and they flat-out won the series. There will still be some questions about how much the Sterling distraction continued to eat at the players and more importantly eat at their focus between games.
On the court, the Clippers had an eventful series. They took Game 1 behind Chris Paul's incredible shooting then dropped the next two to the Thunder. They had a furious comeback in Game 4, only to lose the series by giving up two big comebacks in Game 5 and Game 6 to the Thunder. I'm still not sure we know how good this team is, but it doesn't really matter until next season because they're done once again.
Kevin Durant. This seems like an obvious choice, but that's because there is no other choice than him. The MVP of the regular season was the MVP of this round, averaging 33.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.2 blocks. He shot 47.0 percent from the field, 38.5 percent from the arc, and 87.9 percent from the charity stripe. He had some monster games with a 32-12-9 performance, a 36-8-6 line, and dropping 39-16-5 in an elimination game. I didn't even mention the 40 spot he hung on the Clippers neither. He's a video game with the difficulty sliders turned all the way down.
Russell Westbrook. There isn't any way around giving this to him. Tried to look at guys like Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Reggie Jackson, but the X-Factor in all of these games was certainly Westbrook. When Westbrook moved the ball, the Thunder were great in this series. In the two losses suffered by the Thunder, Westbrook played well with 28.0 points per game on 52.8 percent shooting and 6.0 assists per game. In the four wins, Westbrook averaged 27.8 points (47.3 percent) and 10.3 assists. The Good Westbrook really fueled this team.
THE SERIES WAS OVER WHEN...
The Thunder went on a 10-0 run late in Game 6. This series was very much in doubt until a two-minute stretch in the middle of the fourth quarter of Game 6 that gave the Thunder control of the game. The Clippers had just tied it at 80 when Durant hit a jumper to put them up two. Westbrook came back and got a layup to put the Thunder up four. Then back-to-back 3-pointers by Durant and Jackson pushed the lead to 10. The Clippers chipped away at it, but never tied the game again and their season was ended.
We had all kinds of cool moments and plays in this game.
We had dueling handles between Kevin Durant and Chris Paul:
We had the crazy comeback by the Clippers at the end of Game 4.
We had Westbrook's amazing scoring display in Game 5.
We had Durant not being able to watch Westbrook's first free throw at the end of Game 5.
And unfortunately we had this infamous play, which sparked all kinds of discussion about the NBA, officiating, and replay review.
This was a crazy series.
LOOKING AHEAD FOR OKLAHOMA CITY
We're getting a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference finals when the San Antonio Spurs won the first two games of the series before the Thunder regrouped and took the next four. Since that series, the Thunder have controlled this match-up. They've won six out of eight against the Spurs since the 2012 playoffs, and their athleticism seems to pose a huge problem for the Spurs. But Gregg Popovich has possibly his most focused team ever, coming off some extended rest after finishing the Blazers in five games. The Thunder will get to rest up over the weekend, head to San Antonio, and see if they can continue this dominance over the past two seasons.
LOOKING AHEAD FOR LOS ANGELES
First and foremost, let's hope Sterling can't do anything in court and is indeed forced to sell the team, as Adam Silver decreed. Once that headache is gone and a new ownership can eventually take over, the only thing to worry about on the court will be basketball related. The Clippers' core is superb, but they do have holes. They could use an upgrade at small forward over Matt Barnes, and probably move him to the bench unit. Darren Collison has the ability to decline his option for next season, so they may be in need of a backup point guard. The team could also use one more shooter, although a healthy and in-shape Jared Dudley could solve that problem.
Mostly, this team needs to find some big man depth. They can't get by next season with Glen Davis or Ryan Hollins or a Hedo Turkoglu/Danny Granger stretch-4 combination. This team needs a legitimate backup center and someone to take some pressure off of Blake Griffin. This team is so close to being a title contender that it won't take much to push them over the top.