So, after all that craziness, with the buzzer-beating bank shots and all the second-round underdogs taking 2-1 series leads, when it's all said and done the playoffs have gone "chalk" once again, and we're left with a pair of conference finals where it's No. 1 vs. No. 2. Just like last year.
Tomorrow I'll offer my views on the Hawks, Warriors and, yes, the Spurs. But first, let's talk about the Los Angeles Clippers because their fate only reinforced a truth that should be common knowledge by now:
You're not going to make it out of the Western Conference if you don't have depth, no matter how good your stars are.
The quick and easy postmortem narrative is that fatigue caught up to the Clippers by the end of Game 6 against Houston after 11.75 games worth of brilliant performances, but that's not accurate. The truth is they've mixed in some bad quarters and bad games along the way. They were pathetic in Game 3 at San Antonio. They folded down the stretch of Game 5, with Blake Griffin shooting 1-of-9 in the fourth quarter and turning it over three times. They got outscored 59-46 in the second half of Game 2 at Houston and Griffin, playing without Paul, was so wiped that he only took six shots combined over those final two quarters, despite playing 23 of 24 minutes. Up 3-1 in the series, L.A. got blown out on the road in Game 5, never in the game at all, down 15 at half.
The fourth quarter of Game 6 was the crescendo, of course, the collapse to which all others will pale. Paul and Griffin's coronation turned into "The Red Wedding," basically, with the Clippers shooting 4-of-22 at home in the fourth quarter of a closeout game. In Game 7, they were clearly fried, exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. Griffin's defense was unspeakably bad, his five turnovers felt like 15 and Paul was uncharacteristically flat and lifeless. His numbers were there, but he just didn't have his usual orneriness.
It was a hangdog, defeated team that showed up in the Toyota Center on Sunday and to be clear THAT was the Clippers team I was expecting to see in Game 6 at San Antonio one round ago. And the sad thing is it was happening. The Spurs had a ten point lead and the game was threatening to get away from the Clips when Pop went to Hack-a-Jordan to screech the car to a full stop. That was his biggest gaffe of the series, more than anything he did in Game 7. If you want to accuse him of throwing the series, subconsciously or otherwise, that's where I'd start.
But I digress. Pop's mistake only masked the Clippers' weakness for a little while longer until the Rockets exposed it. Of course, Doc Rivers was in full denial after the game, as USA Today's Sam Amick chronicled, with Rivers telling him
"I want to win. That's why I came here. I knew when I came here that roster-wise it was going to be very difficult. The first thing I did before I took this job, I looked at the roster and we laughed. I was like, 'What the (expletive) can we do with this?' It was more the contracts. But we have to try to do it somehow. I don't know how yet, but something will work out."
Rivers takes no responsibility at all for a roster where all of his best players were already there before he arrived and his fourth-best guy --J.J. Redick-- is worse than the fourth-best guy he dumped in Eric Bledsoe. He insisted that Spencer Hawes would be an important signing, which turned out to be a farce, and he lost out on the chance to pick up Paul Pierce for a song. Now he's gonna have to pony up the max to re-sign DeAndre Jordan and won't have any cap room to fix the roster. And that's if he can even re-sign Jordan, which may not be a certainty. Bill Reiter of FOX sports reports that there was a growing rift between Jordan and Paul that may influence Jordan's decision in the off-season.
Maybe in the long run it'd be to the Clippers benefit to let Jordan walk. The numbers bare out that his defensive reputation is greatly overrated and he's an offensive liability. Maybe they'd be better off getting a center who can make more of his free throws than your average junior-varsity benchwarmer and spreading that money over three or four NBA-quality reserves. Maybe Paul's rigid personality will save Rivers from himself as a general manager.
Or maybe Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is paying Rivers 10 times more than what Vinny Del Negro was making for the exact same results. 56 empty regular season wins, round two of the playoffs and hitherto thou shalt come but no further.
The upgrade the Clippers made at coach is significant but if having Rivers roaming the sideline also means he will be making personnel decisions, the trade off is simply not worth it.