National Basketball Association

Under Pressure

September 15, 2020

By Martin Rogers

Neither Al Pacino, Kurt Russell nor Denzel Washington will find their way channeled into Doc Rivers’ mind on Tuesday as the Los Angeles Clippers coach tries to find a way, any old way, to put what has turned into a nightmare series into the rear view mirror.

Rivers likes sports movies as much as the next guy but doesn’t feel like gladiatorial words of fire to conjure the spirit of Russell’s Herb Brooks (Miracle) or Billy Bob Thornton’s Gary Gaines (Friday Night Lights) are the right recipe to help him forget about the Denver Nuggets, the playoff opponent that started out as a pest and has since grown into an annoyance of monstrously threatening proportions.

“I’m going to say ‘let’s go win,’” Rivers told reporters when asked what message he planned to import ahead of Tuesday’s second round Game 7. “Rah-rah speeches are very overrated. There’s no secret speech. That’s for the movies. The real thing is you’ve got to have preparation. There is nothing secret or magical, it is about playing basketball, manning up.”

Okay, no movie motivation then, so what are the Clippers going to be able to do to avoid this from turning into a horror show that they didn’t see coming? While the Lakers booked their end of the bargain in setting up an epic battle of L.A. in the conference finals, Rivers’ team, despite boasting the stardom of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, has stalled and procrastinated and frankly, failed to do their part.

Now there is a single chance remaining to “win one for the gipper,” or whatever the NBA postseason equivalent of that might be.

It is a weird spot to be in, one game away from being derided for having produced one of the great NBA postseason choke jobs, and also one game away from being right back to where they were before – many people’s pick to win it all.

If the Clippers are truly comfortable when placed under heavy pressure, they have yet to prove it, and questions linger.

“Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes?” – Thornton’s Coach Gaines.

The Clippers paradox has played out for several weeks on FS1’s First Things First, with co-host Nick Wright certain that an implosion is imminent and Chris Broussard maintaining that the team is still the league’s most well-rounded and a worthy title favorite.

“The Nuggets were down 18 in Game 6 and went on a 56-25 run on these fraudulent Clippers,” Wright said. “I don’t know how people can still believe in (L.A.) after watching them this postseason.”

If the Clippers are going to win Game 7, they will need someone to step up on the offensive end outside of Leonard and George, who have combined for 57 percent of L.A.‘s scoring output the past two games.

“Go pick me a winner, Bobby.” – The Natural.

The Clippers should win the decider, and FOX Bet has them listed as a seven-point favorite to win Game 7. The repercussions if they don’t could put the franchise in a dire spot.

A premature end causes problems that the Clippers don’t really want to think about. This was a team built to beat the Lakers and to win a championship. Part of the deal with Leonard leaving Toronto was that George would be recruited to stand alongside him. If this is a formula with more flaws than fight, the end could come sooner than predicted.

Rivers is projecting calm but has no desire to have a 3-1 surrender on his record for the third time in his career, after his Clippers let go such a lead against Houston in 2015 and the Orlando Magic did the same against the Detroit Pistons in 2003.

The series could end up being a mere bump in a glittering road, or the end of the journey.

“If we end up winning it all this year it will be a story to tell,” Rivers added. “Every year is different, every journey is different. We are here because we have put ourselves here.”

They’re also there because the Nuggets, unfairly ignored for too long because the West has seemed like a two-horse race since even before the start of the season, have been simply excellent and profoundly resilient.

Nikola Jokic produces artistry in a hulking form, and there has been no definitive answer to Denver's big man, with even the Clippers’ newly installed Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell, being outclassed.

“I don’t play defense” – Bill Murray in Space Jam.

Not well enough to cope with Jokic, anyway. Furthermore, Jamal Murray is an emerging superstar and Denver has won five straight elimination games after overturning a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz in the previous round.

It sets up a blockbuster, not the kind of one we are expecting. It feels like the Clippers should win, but it has felt like that for the past two games as well. It is a strange season and the Clippers are on the bubble, in the bubble.

“Will you remember me if I don’t (make it)?” – Hoop Dreams.

Oh, for sure. Just not in the way they’d want us to.


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