Paul George was remarkably nonchalant following his season-ending loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. "I think internally, we always felt this was not a championship-or-bust year for us," George told reporters after Game 7. A single sentence is almost never enough to account for the context of a collapse. In this case? Little else is needed. Teams that don't adopt the "championship or bust" mindset usually wind up being the teams that bust. Championships aren't won accidentally. They're taken with the sort of intention the Clippers never played with.
Determined to match the load-management blueprint laid out by the Toronto Raptors a year ago, the Clippers only played Kawhi Leonard and Paul George together in 37 regular-season games. They entered the postseason without a single available five-man lineup among the 50-most played in basketball.
That lack of urgency spilled into just about everything they did on the court. A Clippers team that branded itself "grit over glam" finished 26th in the NBA in loose ball recoveries per game and 20th in deflections. Despite the presence of a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two other All-Defense alums, the Clippers had the No. 21 clutch defense in the NBA. A year ago, Leonard found himself in an identical position: leading a favorite into a Game 7 in the second round. He took 39 shots in that game, and won it in historic fashion. This time around? He took 22.
That approach made this meltdown inevitable, whether against the Nuggets or someone else, but it's also what separates it from history's other great failures. There is no meaningful context to justify what happened to the Clippers. They just blew it.
They are hardly the first team to blow a 3-1 series lead, after all. They aren't even the first Clippers team to do so. The 2015 Clippers led the Houston Rockets 3-1 in the second round, and entered the fourth quarter of Game 6 leading by 13. They proceeded to watch Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, both below 29 percent from behind the arc for their careers, nail five 3-pointers in one of the most remarkable fourth-quarter comebacks in NBA history. Those Clippers can be excused for being victimized by random variance.
The 2016 Warriors blew the most famous 3-1 lead of all time, but none of those games were played at full strength. Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. Andrew Bogut was lost to injury for the series in Game 6. Stephen Curry played the entire postseason on an injured knee. Embarrassing? No doubt, but hardly the self-inflicted nightmare the Clippers are currently living.
The 2006 Dallas Mavericks very nearly took a 3-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. And then the whistles started blowing. Dwyane Wade took 73 free throws in Miami's four consecutive victories. The 97 he took in the six games is the most any player has ever attempt in a seven-game series. He remains to this day the only player ever to take more than 20 free throws twice in the same NBA Finals series.
The Clippers could cite the bubble as justifiable context, but it's not as if the difficulty of their environment was unique to them. The Undefeated's Marc Spears reported that several Clippers players struggled to play extended minutes in Game 7, and needed to ask out of the game for a breather. Yet it was the Nuggets that played an exhausting Game 7 against the Utah Jazz only two days before this series began. Patrick Beverley missed most of the first round due to injury, but so did Gary Harris. Will Barton hasn't played a postseason minute for the Nuggets. The Clippers had their entire roster available for every game of this series.
They still lost, and while the Nuggets had quite a bit to do with that, it was ultimately the result of their own refusal to address issues that were plainly visible all season long. Despite lacking a playoff-caliber defensive center, they spent their lone trade chip (a 2020 first-round pick) modestly upgrading Mo Harkless into Marcus Morris. That No. 21-ranked clutch defense largely boiled down to Doc Rivers consistently leaving two weak links on the floor. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell led the Clippers in clutch minutes this season. They were exploited time and again. But in this series? Williams played more fourth-quarter minutes than Leonard. They lost Harrell's 48 fourth-quarter minutes by 21 points.
Those minutes their best players didn't play together during the regular season? They would've come in handy in the postseason. The Clippers averaged the third-fewest passes per game in the NBA this season, and finished with the fifth-fewest possessions on cuts. They relied on individual shot-making to carry what was an otherwise stagnant offense, and when the Nuggets solved that offense, they had no alternative to fall back on because their best players didn't have enough shared court experience to develop any.
If anyone summed up the Clippers' season better than George, it was Williams. "We had championship expectations," he told reporters. "We had the talent to do it. We didn't have the chemistry to do it." Chemistry is built over time, time that a team with a "championship or bust" mindset might have devoted.
The Clippers, as George freely admitted, didn't. They jogged through the season with the jaded boredom of a late-run dynasty, assuming that championship-caliber habits would automatically sprout from championship-caliber talent. They acted like a champion before they became one, and that is why they won't become one this season. That isn't the bubble's fault. It's their own. Unlike the rest of history's greatest chokers, the 2019-20 Clippers have no one to blame but themselves.