Blake Griffin and Chris Paul Are Down, But the Clippers Aren't Out Yet
Pain has bedeviled this Clippers team—recent injuries to Griffin and Paul are only the latest in a long line—resilience has been woven into its competitive fabric.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
There's no way around it, really: any chance the Los Angeles Clippers had of contending for a NBA championship in 2016 vanished during Game 4 of their first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. In the span of a few third-quarter minutes, a reach and a jump—basic, vital motions performed hundreds of times in every NBA game—broke Chris Paul's hand and aggravated Blake Griffin's torn quadriceps. The prognoses were swift and decisive. Griffin has been shut down for the season, and by the time Paul can conceivably return to action, the Clippers will have long since set sail on their annual early-May fishing trip.
While their playmaking lodestars openly agonized on the sidelines, the Clippers faded in Game 4; after hanging with the Blazers through three quarters of Game 5 in Los Angeles, they dropped that one, too. They now head back to Portland down 3-2, hoping to stave off summary elimination.
It's no secret that the road to the NBA Finals is an attritional slog, but injury luck seems especially unforgiving for this Clippers group. In the past five playoff runs, Paul has sustained injuries to his thumb, his hamstring, his hip flexor, his hamstring again, and his third metacarpal. Likewise, Griffin rolled his ankle landing on Lamar Odom's foot in a 2013 practice and was mostly unplayable in the last two games of that year's first-round loss to Memphis; the year before that, it was his knee. In any of the years Griffin and Paul have played together, you might be able to point to a more decimated playoff roster somewhere else, but on balance, no team matches the Clippers' postseason susceptibility to the nicks and cuts and, now, breaks.
While pain has bedeviled this team, resilience has been woven into its competitive fabric. Winning shorthanded has become as much a hallmark of Doc Rivers' squad as the ill-timed injuries. With Paul out for the first two games of last year's Houston series, the Clippers, led by buttershoed failgod Austin Rivers, up and stole home court. This year, Griffin's quad injury and suspension cost him three months; the team went 30-15 in that span.
"Over the course of the year, we've faced adversity," said Cole Aldrich, who vacuums the glass for the second unit, having surged into the rotation in Griffin's absence. "A lot of it—Austin with the broken hand, Blake's been out. But we kept on staying with it, and that shows a lot. And I think it will pay off for us."
If playing through injuries has become integral to the team's identity, extending their season with this active roster represents its misogi challenge. Since acquiring Paul in December 2010, the Clippers are 66-42 when either Paul or Griffin sits out, but Wednesday was only the seventh time in five seasons they've played without both. "The situation isn't ideal," Jamal Crawford said, "but you have two choices: you can stand and fight, or you can lay down."
This is a self-conscious, emotional group, which is why their best 47 minutes of the 2014 season precipitated a one-minute implosion in Oklahoma City, and why a 19-point lead in a 2015 closeout game against Houston meant suddenly pulling teeth. Jimmy Goldstein, NBA superfan and eminent Source Close to the Team, witnessed the anxiety before Game 4 from his courtside seats in Portland.
"They were more uptight than I've ever seen them, from Doc Rivers on down," Goldstein said.
DeAndre Jordan went to the line in the second quarter of that game and airballed both free throws. The inconvenient truth is that the Clippers offense was sputtering from their overthink long before Chris Paul's hand got caught in a jersey (although Griffin playing on one leg certainly contributed to their struggles).
On the other hand, being able to hit such emotional highs as a team means no comeback is ever out of reach. Turn their crippling doubt into self-assurance and suddenly Austin Rivers hits seven threes or Crawford bags a game-winner. Crawford points to a win over Utah and a near-miss against OKC, both played without any Clipper starters, as evidence that the same group who frittered away a 2-0 series lead can wrench the series back from Portland's grip. "We play against our starters every single day," he said, "and they're one of the best starting units in the league."
Losing their offensive focal points means cutting most of the playbook, but it also gives the other guys license to write their own script. "Basketball players like to play," Rivers said. "I think this group has been that type of group all year."
Dramatic swoops of fervor and panic were the story in Game 5. Doc teared up in his pregame presser, and the Clippers played inspired basketball from the tip, scrambling to contain the Blazers' mighty guards and sprinting out for transition hoops. But having fought their way to a five-point halftime lead, the Clippers then went the first five-plus minutes of the second half without a point. Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum, menaced out of the paint for the first three quarters by Jordan—who was Momma Hooper incarnate, by the way—got to long-range twine-ripping in the fourth and put the game away.
Ironically, the Clippers' strong play in the absence of their stars has given weight to the idea that the team's core of Blake, Paul, and Jordan should be broken up. It just as easily shows how good the team is from top to bottom, suggesting that waiting another year for the tides of health to turn may be worth another 82-game grind. But this season's not over yet.
"Everybody has to chip in a little bit more," Crawford said. "These are the cards we're dealt. Nothing we can do will change that except going on the court."