The Fall of the Superteam

by Alex Mitchell

Why the Clippers fell short of championship expectations

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“Iguodala to Curry back to Iguodala, Oh blocked by James!!!!” The defining play in the first ever 3-1 comeback in NBA finals history. When the Cleveland Cavaliers went down 3 games to 1, no one believed they could come back. Not against the team with the best regular season record in the history of the league. Yet sure enough Clevland came back and ended the city’s 52 year championship drought. That was then. This is now. With the neutrality of the bubble being the great “equalizer”,with no fans and thus no real home court advantage, series that otherwise would have been blowouts were close, and teams that otherwise wouldn’t have stood a chance given the odds made the most of their opportunity.

The perfect example of this phenomenon in the bubble was the notable playoff run by the 3-seeded Denver Nuggets. With an unprecedented postseason that included overcoming two 3-1 series deficits, the Nuggets eventually made it to the Western Conference Finals. One of their comebacks happened to be against many people’s favorite to win the NBA Championship, The Los Angeles Clippers. With the addition of two of the top 5 best two-way players in the league in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the deepest roster in the league with two sixth man of the year finalists in Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, and an NBA championship winning coach in Doc Rivers, the Clippers looked like the only team who could oppose the star power of the Lakers in the Conference Finals. Everyone was looking forward to a Clippers-Lakers Western Conference Finals, Bubble edition. However, the Nuggets stint in the bubble was far from over. Throughout the series, the Nuggets played mistake free basketball, unphased by the pressure of the moment or their opponent. They played to their strengths and didn’t panic when they needed clutch baskets at the end of the game. The Nuggets starting center, Nikola Jokic, is one of the best in the league, but throughout these playoffs Jamal Murray, a definite star in the league, was their best player. With two 50 point performances in the Nuggets series against Utah as well as averaging 27 points and 7 assists throughout both their comeback series’, Murray was the most instrumental factor in a team’s success these playoffs.

Game 7 is often referred to as the best two words in all of sports. Your season on the line. A shot at an NBA championship on the line. A chance to go down in history on the line. Even after the Nuggets battled all the way back to force a game seven, I still believed the Clippers would defeat them. With arguably the best defensive team and the reigning finals MVP, along with a reigning MVP finalist to lead them, the Clippers trip to the Conference Finals seemed inevitable. Despite the plethora of talent on the team, the Clippers failed to execute against the Nuggets. While their leaders folded under pressure, the Nuggets excelled as they were led by Murray and Jokic. The Nuggets shot 49% and 36% from 3 as well as 94% from the free throw line. Murray led the way with 40 points while Jokic stayed physical in the post, tallying 22 rebounds and 13 assists. Conversely, the Clippers leading scorer was Montrezl Harrell, who came off the bench and scored a meager 20 points. No starter had more than 15 points. As a team, the Clippers shot an abysmal 38% from the field and 26% from three for the game. Kahwi and George combined for only 24 points on 26% from the field and 22% from three as well as a combined plus minus of -41, meaning that while they were on the floor the Nuggets outscored the Clippers by a total of 41 points.

For a team with championship aspirations and ambitions, the Clippers performance was laughable in game seven. With their season on the line, starters failed to shoot comparably to the Nuggets, eliminating any chance at winning. That being said, the Nuggets did an excellent job all series sticking to their game plan even when their backs were against the wall and forcing the Clippers into uncomfortable situations. As the Clippers go back to the drawing board to figure out why they didn’t live up to expectation, the departure of one of the game's best coaches, Doc Rivers, will make that process even tougher. It will be a busy offseason full of constant hard work, repetition and trying to forget about the past but you know what they say… Champions are built in the offseason.