LOS ANGELES – When it comes to the playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers’ history is short and not at all sweet.
The once-beleaguered franchise has never made it past the second round, and in two of the last three years under coach Doc Rivers they’ve blown comfortable series leads and ended up going home.
At least they’re going to open these playoffs at home, and given the team’s recent history, that’s no small thing.
Neither is the momentum they’re riding.
The Clippers won seven in a row and 11 of 13 to end the regular season. They clinched home court for the first round against Utah six months after starting the season as the NBA’s hottest team at 14-2.
“This really could be their year,” Sacramento coach Dave Joerger said. “They could really do something. They’re in a rhythm, they’re playing well.”
The Clippers have shown maturity down the stretch, seizing home court after the Jazz put the pressure on by winning on Wednesday night. The Clippers had to beat the Kings to end up tied with Utah at 51-31, and they owned the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series 3-1.
“This team has grown a lot,” Blake Griffin said. “Maybe more than any other season that we have had here.”
The Clippers survived a combined 42 games without Griffin and Chris Paul, going 19-23 in their absence. Their worst stretch was a six-game skid between Christmas and New Year’s and they responded by starting the new year on a seven-game winning streak, equaling their longest of the season.
“When you have as many injuries as we did, the ups and downs of the season, the length of the season, you go through a lot of adversity,” Griffin said. “You always say that when we come out on the other side we are going to be better for it, and I truly believe that we are.”
The Big Three of Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan are in their sixth season together and still in pursuit of their first title.
Their sense of urgency may never be greater.
Paul and Griffin are in the final year of their contracts, which include player options for 2017-18. Jordan has a year remaining, with a player option for 2018-19.
A year ago, the Clippers owned a 2-0 lead against Portland in the first round only to lose in six games after injuries to Paul and Griffin.
In 2015, they gave up a 3-1 lead against Houston and blew a 19-point lead in Game 6 with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line. In 2014, Paul had an infamous meltdown, twice turning the ball over and fouling Russell Westbrook, who made three straight free throws to beat the Clippers by one point in Game 5 of the conference semifinals. They lost Game 6 back at home.
In fact, the Clippers have lost at least once at home in their last six playoff appearances.
“Because of the experiences we’ve had, I think we’re concentrating on finishing,” Paul said. “Trying not to have those different lapses in games. That’s probably where we’ve showed a little bit of growth and we won’t really be able to tell until the playoffs.”
Heading into Saturday’s playoff opener, the Clippers are healthy, with the exception of backup guard Austin Rivers, who missed the final six games with a strained left hamstring. He could return soon.
Despite their recent failures, Doc Rivers insists he never goes into a new playoff series thinking about the past.
“Does that mean there’s no residual effect?” he asked. “I can’t say.”
While they can’t change their painful past, they recognize it and clearly want to get past it.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” said Jamal Crawford, three-time Sixth Man of the Year. “Ultimately, we’ll be one of the teams judged on our postseason success, so we’re ready for it.”
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