The Clippers Are Still Ahead Of Schedule

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LOS ANGELES – There wasn’t going to be another 31-point comeback for the Clippers in Game 3 against the Warriors. Not that Golden State didn’t make it a possibility, extending their lead to 31 midway through the third quarter and seeing it balloon to as much as 36 thanks to a statement-filled performance out of Kevin Durant. The two-time defending NBA Finals MVP finished with 38 points in 30 minutes, including 27 in the first half, and mixed it up with Patrick Beverley once again, channeling whatever frustration he still had into his devastating jumper.

We know who the Warriors are. Nothing in this series will teach us anything new. If there’s anything we’ve learned about this year’s Clippers, though, it’s that they will not quit, even when they’re clearly outmatched and outgunned. And for a team that traded away its leading scorer at the deadline in a move that looked to foreshadow a rebuild and still managed to make the playoffs anyway, every extra minute matters, even the ones in a listless blowout.

Beverley, who has been the team’s heart and soul all year, was in a mostly empty locker room after many of the Clippers’ players had finished showering and packed up their stuff to go home. He was still fired up, proclaiming to no one in particular that this series was far from over.

“It’s one game,” Beverley said. “It’s one game. Keep everybody locked in.”
The Clippers are far from using the nothing to lose/house money excuse, and more power to them, but these moments will make a much bigger impact heading into next season than in an eventual series loss to the defending champs.

“We’re just a resilient, tough-minded group,” Doc Rivers said during his availability prior to Game 3. “I think we’re more talented than we get credit for, I really do. Maybe no superstar, but when you add them all up as a group they’re pretty special. They’re a special group for me to coach for sure.”

Los Angeles already ensured themselves an extra game of experience thanks to their improbable Game 2 comeback. That, in itself, is eye opening against Golden State. It wasn’t that long ago the Warriors were a six-seed against the Nuggets during the 2012-13 playoffs and knocked them off in six games thanks, in part, to a young nucleus of first and second-year players: Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, and Harrison Barnes were rookies, while Klay Thompson was in his second year.

The Clippers, of course, don’t have a transcendent talent like Curry — who averaged 24.3 points and 9.3 assists while shooting 44 percent from deep in that series — to swing the series. (Curry finished with 21 points in Game 3.)

But what Los Angeles does have is the potential to grow together with a mix of players in different stages of their development, and the veterans to help show them how it’s done, which was a recipe for success in the Bay in the first place.

“We’ve gotta be ready,” center Ivica Zubac said following the 132-105 loss about the young guys’ role. “It’s a long series. We can’t be saying we’re young, no experience and everything. We’ve got to play. We’re important to the team. No matter what excuses we’ve got, we’ve got to leave that at the door and be ready to play.”
The Clippers have a dynamic and explosive forward in 25-year-old Montrezl Harrell. Zubac, acquired in a surprising deadline deal with the Lakers, showed flashes in the post at times this season and will be a restricted free agent on July 1. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s steady demeanor gives hope he’s capable of leading the team and has been able to learn from tone-setters like Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. Another rookie, midseason acquisition Landry Shamet, shot 45 percent from three in his 25 regular season games in L.A. And the team still has the chance to see what they have in Jerome Robinson, the 13th overall pick from a year ago.

Even a minor move like claiming Rodney McGruder off waivers on April 9, thus giving them his restricted free agent rights, was a look toward the future. While he can’t help them in the playoffs, McGruder was as worthwhile an addition as he was a major loss for the Miami Heat, who needed to waive him with an eye on getting under the luxury tax threshold.

In some ways, this year’s Clippers season is analogous to an NCAA Tournament team that made it to the Dance a year ahead of schedule. A loss still stings, but the taste is enough to make it that much more real, and they’ve got an entire offseason to get ready to run it back for a deeper run the next time around.

“We faced the same thing a year ago in the first round,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 3. “We played the Spurs. We knew going in we had to be locked in because of how well-coached they were, connected. That’s the same way it is with the Clippers. It’s a really good, young team. Doc has done a fabulous job with them. They have a lot of momentum. You can tell they love playing together.”

All that is before you add in asset accumulation in the form of the Harris deal (Philly’s 2020 first, Miami’s 2021 first, and two future Detroit seconds), and the presumption that they’ll swing for the fences this summer with the hopes of landing a big name free agent like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or perhaps even Durant.

This Clippers season isn’t just a cute story; it’s a very real threat to the rest of the league.
All told, if the Clippers renounce all their UFA holds (Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green, Beverley), let Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Wallace (fully nonguaranteed) walk, and give qualifying offers to Zubac and McGruder, they’re looking at more than $54 million in cap room heading into next summer, per Early Bird Rights. That’s a lot for Jerry West, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, GM Michael Winger, and company to work with, and a big part of the reason why the Clippers are expected to be major players this summer. They could bring back some of those guys who have helped shape the post-Lob City Clippers’ identity, and still take shots at anyone from Leonard and Butler, to Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker.

Jovan Buha of The Athletic wrote about the subject after Game 2, and spoke with an NBA agent who broke down the Clippers’ pitch quite succinctly.

“L.A. is a desired place of living — guys like to be there during the offseason,” an NBA agent told The Athletic. “And they have stuff that sets them apart from like the Lakers: continuity, cohesiveness. They have an owner who will do whatever it takes that’s possible.

“They have a nice blend of young talent with guys who are role players and excelling and thriving in their roles,” the agent continued. “If you’re a star and you come in, they already have guys who know their roles. In other situations, you try to bring in role players and have to deal with role allocation and adjustments. I think any star would be a seamless fit with the Clippers.”

It was noteworthy enough to host home playoff games in the Staples Center while the LeBron-led Lakers are at home without a coach or a president of basketball operations. It was even more impressive to steal a game at Oracle in an epic comeback. But the team’s biggest splash might be still on its way.

Perhaps Lob City had to crumble so these Clippers could live. The team’s motto all season long has been “L.A. Our Way,” and they seem intent on proving it.

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