LOS ANGELES — There’s always next year.
After Friday’s 105-101 loss to New Orleans in the final Western Conference Qualifier, the Clippers will have 2022-23 to look forward to, when they expect All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are hopefully playing healthy after missing all or most of this season, respectively.
But the 2021-22 Clippers have proven to be tough.
“We fought so hard all year,” said veteran striker Marcus Morris Sr. if it turned in the right direction for us. Going down like that, it’s hard. It’s just hard.
It was a tough game that started with a failed lead and a tough loss to their old friend Patrick Beverley in Minnesota.
It set up a must-win game at home against a Pelicans team that has given them fits over the past two seasons – without George, who was ruled out Friday morning in accordance with NBA health and safety protocols. Marksman guard Luke Kennard also missed the game, his second in a row, with right hamstring pain.
And then, to add an extra degree of difficulty to the task, the Clippers fell to a 16-point hole, trailing the important Pelicans by 45-29 with 7:11 left in the second quarter.
Right where they wanted them, in other words.
This time, the Clippers rallied but couldn’t hang on, ultimately succumbing to the Crypto.com Arena, where the Pelicans – who started the season 1-12 – roared from a 13-point deficit with 10:51 to play in the third quarter. for the win and a date with the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in a best-of-seven first-round series, which begins Sunday night.
Had they held on, the Clippers could have pulled off their 15th successful rally from a double-digit deficit this season.
It was that kind of season for coach Tyronn Lue’s team, which didn’t have five-time All-Star Leonard at all because of a torn ACL, and had seven-time All-Star George. Star, for only 31 years. matches after being eliminated by a torn elbow ligament.
“I’ve been in this league for 14 years,” said Nicolas Batum. “I’ve never seen this before. COVID, injuries, returns, everything. It was fun, though. It was fun. We’ve been through it all. Trades, missing players. I mean, we had everything.
“We were still in the top eight in the West without our best player, without two best players technically because PG played (31) games (and) we are missing for the biggest game of the year due to COVID and we still almost find a way to win this game!”
This bad news about George’s elbow injury came over Christmas, news of newcomer Norman Powell’s broken foot during the Super Bowl on Sunday and, Friday morning, hours before their do or die game against New Orleans , the world learned the Clippers would have to survive to move forward without George (who went into COVID-19 health and safety protocols).
The final blow finally killed them.
The Clippers have players missed 345 games combined (the second most in the league) and, by spotrac.comthey paid $74,069,847 to those unavailable players (by far the most in the NBA).
And yet they finished the regular season 42-40 and in eighth place in the Western Conference, six games ahead of ninth-place New Orleans (36-46).
Two seasons ago, that would have been enough for the Clippers to clinch a playoff berth, before the introduction of the play-in tournament, which introduced seventh-thru 10th-place finishers into a group playing for their lives in playoffs, regardless of record.
“I’m not a play-in fan,” Marcus Morris Sr. said, noting, however, “…we should have won one of those games and we would have been in the playoffs, that’s all. that I can really say.”
The Clippers closed in on Friday in a whiplash-causing game in which they used a 38-18 third quarter to go from a 10-point trail to a 10-point lead. They did. with an aggressive small roster that included a rotation of Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, Robert Covington, Batum, Morris and Powell.
But as quickly as that group built a 13-point lead, the Pelicans clawed it back as the Clippers on the field began to tire. New Orleans had streaks of 11-0 and 10-0, the latter of which, capped by rookie Trey Murphy’s 3-pointer, gave them a 101-94 lead.
Twice in the 1:17 final, the Clippers got less than two points, but they missed two of their last four free throw attempts (and 12 of 34 for the game) and the curtain fell on the game and their season often unlikely. .
“It was like a heavyweight fight. Seriously,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “(Lue) was making adjustments. He took out his big ones, we were trying to adapt to it. It didn’t work for us, we put our fat back on.
“That didn’t work for us either, so we were throwing darts at the dartboard just to try to figure out, how can we find an environment where we can play at both ends of the floor because they’re difficult. They are difficult to face.”
The Clippers got 27 points each from Jackson and Morris Sr., 17 from Powell and 14 from Covington.
Batum played stellar defense and, despite shooting 1 of 7 from the field, finished team best plus-11 in the box score.
Brandon Ingram scored 30 points and CJ McCollum added 19 for New Orleans, which is in the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18.
It’s the first time in five seasons as NBA head coach that Lue has missed the playoffs — and an opportunity to play for a conference championship, for that matter.
“I never made the playoffs as a coach – as an assistant, as a manager,” said Lue, who led the Clippers to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in the league. history of the franchise last season. “It’s tough. It’s going to make me stronger. I’ve been through a lot worse. I’m disappointed we couldn’t make the playoffs no matter who was playing.
“It’s tough for me. It will be something different, something I’ve never experienced before.
Even so, Lue hasn’t struggled to find the silver linings this season, with an eye on the future after an offseason in which the Clippers’ free agents will be Covington and backup center Isaiah Hartenstein as well as third-year winger Amir Coffey (restricted) and Batum, who has a player option.
“I think it’s been an amazing season for our guys, everything we’ve had to go through,” he said. “Like our fans staying loyal, continuing to support throughout the season… for the guys in the locker room, like, scrapped, the way we’ve competed all year. It doesn’t matter who played, was in the rotation, who was in and out.
“You have to keep your head up. Great things we can be proud of. Get ready, keep rebuilding and get ready for next year.
Or as Batum says, “I love this team. I’ve been here for almost two years now… it’s been two different years. But I loved it, I loved it. I really like it here. This coach, these guys. I mean, it’s tough today, but it’s gonna be fun next year.