The Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers kept it short and sweet when describing his thoughts during his final post-game interview.
“I’m just disappointed right now,” he said.
After the Clippers’ collapse in the final game of the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets on Sept. 15, one of the favorites to win the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship was unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs.
The entire Clippers team made a silent and solemn retreat from the court after the loss. This final nail in the coffin came after giving up their initial 3-1 lead at the beginning of the series. Clippers fans were once again left foaming at the mouth as the 50-year history of franchise playoff misery continues.
14 months ago, the Clippers rebuilt their program to be a championship-caliber squad, with the additions of Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP), and Paul George, a past candidate for MVP. But as they unraveled in the second half of the seventh game, it was clear the Clippers squad failed to meet the expectations set when this star-studded roster came together.
In his post-game interview, Rivers noted that the chemistry of the team paled in comparison to that of the Nuggets.
“Honestly, you could see the difference in the two teams. That team’s been together. We haven’t,” he said. “And you could see it as the games went on.”
The lack of cohesiveness between players was a primary contributor to the team collapse in the second half, resulting in the final score of 104-89.
The Nuggets’ key players have been together for multiple years before making this deep run in this season’s playoff. In the seventh game, their star players had striking performances. Jamal Murray scored 40 points, and his offensive push was a critical factor in erasing a 12-point deficit.
In stark contrast, new additions Kawhi and George gave below-average performances. Kawhi scored 14 points, shooting a pedestrian six for 22, while All-Star swing player George barely outperformed Kawhi, shooting four for 16 and only scoring 10 points.
During his post-game interview, Kawhi pointed to multiple weaknesses in the team’s togetherness.
“That’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots, or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots,” he said. “We gotta know what exact spots we need to be just gotta carry over and get smarter as a team.”
Although the team’s championship run was anticipated this year, the Clippers never delivered on the hype. In games five, six and seven the Clippers had the chance to make it into the finals, but every time they fell short. The team’s lack of solidarity led to execution problems in the second halves of the fifth, sixth and seventh games. In all three games the Clippers lost their hold of a double-digit lead.
In an interview after the game, George attempted to temper the expectations for his team and their performance by describing this past season as a work in progress.
“Internally, we always felt this is not a championship-or-bust year for us,” he said. “We can only get better the longer we stay together, the more we’re around each other. The more chemistry for this group, the better. We just didn’t have enough time together.”
George’s statement should ring the alarm bells for Clippers fans. The Clippers only have Kawhi under contract for another year. They will need to adopt this championship-or-bust mindset for their next season to have another chance at the ultimate prize in the NBA. If the Clippers want to win, they will need to stop taking games for granted and stop other teams from surpassing them.
The Clippers will reach their full potential as a championship-winning team when veteran players like Rivers take on broader leadership roles and act as the glue connecting old and new players. Deepening these connections between the starting lineup will be crucial to bringing home big wins next year.