They're stuck': After a hot start, the Clippers were undone by familiar issues

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WITH MORE THAN seven minutes remaining in Game 5 of the LA Clippers’ first-round series, coach Ty Lue had seen enough.

Lue pulled starters Ivica Zubac and James Harden, who sank into his seat on the bench next to Paul George. Two seats over sat an injured Kawhi Leonard, watching a 123-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks that put the Clippers in a 3-2 hole in the series.

In what would be the Clippers’ final home game in Arena (before they move to Inglewood’s Intuit Dome next season), the team was on the brink of another first-round elimination.

The home crowd, including well-known Clippers fan Billy Crystal, had also seen enough as the majority of them left early. With 8.1 seconds left, Harden and other players began walking off the floor and into the tunnel to a smattering of boos.

Little did the Clippers know that they would not find any refuge in their own locker room after the 30-point loss. Adding insult to the worst playoff loss in franchise history was Mavericks forward P.J. Washington, the Clippers’ newest antagonist who struck the now-infamous arms-folded mean-mugging pose in Game 3, and wasn’t done trolling them.

Directly across the hallway from the Clippers’ locker room, the Mavericks had set up a temporary weight room. Only a thin curtain held up by poles in the middle of the hallway separated both rooms. Washington placed a loudspeaker at the door of Dallas’ weight room and blasted rap music that carried down a long entry way into the Clippers’ locker room.

Sources told ESPN when Clippers security shut the Mavericks’ weight room door as many as four times, Washington would open the door each time. He finally stopped after 10 minutes once Harden’s security guard stood in front of the door.

It was an hour later before some of the last Clippers to leave the locker room learned where the music was coming from.

“That was loud as s—!” one Clippers player said.

This is how the Clippers’ final home game at the arena they had called home for 25 seasons ended. As if a frustrated fan base and a historic defeat wasn’t enough to stomach, Washington was putting in overtime to make sure the Clippers couldn’t dress and collect their thoughts in peace.

Two nights later in Dallas, they folded in the second half to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving in Game 6, losing 114-101 to complete consecutive first-round exits with Leonard injured.

The Clippers came into this season putting aside their cautious load-managing approach from previous campaigns to take the regular season more seriously. Boosted by the long-awaited blockbuster trade for Harden, they looked like a legitimate championship contender when they went 26-5 between December and early February. But the Clippers’ season ended in all-too-familiar fashion with yet another injury to Leonard.

“It’s always the ‘What if,'” Lue said after the loss in Dallas.

The Clippers have made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons since acquiring Leonard and George in 2019 but have no NBA Finals appearances to show for it.

This fall, the Clippers will be moving into their nearly $2 billion arena with a rebranded look, logo and uniforms. But while the Intuit Dome will be the most high-tech arena in the league, team owner Steve Ballmer has found constructing a championship roster way more complex.

Aside from Leonard, who signed a three-year extension in January, the future of the other veteran stars remains cloudy. The Clippers want to keep George, who has a $48.8 million player option in the final year of his deal and can become a free agent. Harden will also be a free agent but has expressed happiness with his new team and is expected to see what happens with George. Russell Westbrook, who began the season as the starting point guard before moving to a sixth-man role, has a player option for the final year of his contract.

Keeping Harden and George would put the Clippers’ payroll in the second apron, making it difficult to improve the NBA’s oldest roster. Still, the Clippers want to retain their stars with hopes of duplicating their midseason magic with better health.

“We are still big believers that the [championship] window is still open,” said Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations. “The hardest thing in team building is to get elite players. We feel we have three of them.”

Unlike selecting amenities for the Intuit Dome, Ballmer doesn’t have much of a choice than to try to run it back with Leonard, George and Harden.

“We were just talking [among our front office] about what they’re going to do,” one decision maker with a Western Conference team recently said. “They’re stuck.”

WHEN HARDEN CAME to Los Angeles after his public falling out with Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, the Clippers believed they could get the best of the former MVP.

He wanted to be in L.A., was motivated during a contract year and had a common goal with George, Leonard, and Westbrook: to win a title together in their hometown. Harden made headlines in his introductory news conference when he expressed his desire to have a coach like Lue work with him and give him freedom to create.

“I’m not a system player,” Harden said. “I am a system.”

But the Clippers lost six straight games following the Harden trade, five with him in the lineup. Shortly after Westbrook agreed to move to the bench to allow Harden to run the offense, the Clippers looked like the best team in the Western Conference from Dec. 2 to Feb. 5, a stretch that saw them leap from 8-10 to 34-15.

When the Clippers delivered a 115-96 thrashing of the Celtics on their home parquet on Jan. 27, they looked like full-fledged title contenders.

“We played like the best team in the league,” Frank said about that run. “… We’re not going to hang a banner over 26-5, but we defended at a really, really high level.”

Behind the scenes, Harden was organizing post-practice sessions to build chemistry with Zubac and other teammates. He worked on pick and rolls with the team’s big men — something that helped Zubac average a career-high 11.7 points to go with 9.2 rebounds.

But this wasn’t just a prove-it season for Harden. Leonard and George had been portrayed by the media as the faces of load management when the league passed a new player participation policy in September. If Leonard and George were going to get extensions, they were going to have to play and win more in the regular season to earn a higher seed in the playoffs.

Lue emphasized conditioning and had his team go through more practices and running than usual. And it helped as Leonard and George played their most games in a regular season as Clippers. Leonard appeared in 68 games, his most since the 2016-17 season with the San Antonio Spurs. And George played in 74 games, his most since the 2018-19 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The two played the first 23 games of the season — their longest stretch of consecutive games together on the court since joining the Clippers in the summer of 2019. Leonard played in his first 27 games, including four back-to-backs, before missing his first game because of injury.

After the duo completed a second set of back-to-back games in a week on Nov. 30, Leonard found some humor in the fact that he and George were often depicted as the example for load management.

“We should sue for — what do they call it? — negligence,” Leonard joked to ESPN.

Leonard missed just five games before the All-Star break. In early January, the Clippers announced that the two-time champion had agreed to a three-year, $150 million extension, which came as a surprise because both he and George were eligible for a maximum extension of four years and $221 million.

Leonard could have waited until the end of the season, when his leverage might’ve been higher. And the Clippers could have waited to see whether Leonard’s healthy start would last.

“There was no hesitation with it,” Frank said then of any reservations the team might’ve had. “In this game, anybody can get injured, but not anyone can be a top-five player. And Kawhi is.”

After Leonard signed his extension, George said he was “very, very optimistic” he would get something done with the Clippers. But talks between both sides were tabled around the All-Star break. The personable George became increasingly short whenever asked in postgame interviews about his contract situation.

Leonard (who shot a career-high 52.5% from the field, along with 41.7% from 3 and 88.5% from the line) said one of the reasons he took less than the max was so that the Clippers could have a chance to keep George and Harden.

“With the conversation that I have with them about it,” Leonard said in early January, “I think for the most part everybody is coming back.”

AS 20,000 FANS at American Airlines Center belted out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” in unison during the entire break between the third and fourth quarters of Friday’s deciding game in Dallas, the Clippers looked defeated as they waited for Lue to join the huddle.

Tied at the half in the must-win game, the Clippers had fallen behind by 15 points with one frame left. That deficit swelled to 24 when Irving put P.J. Tucker on skates and buried a side-stepping 3 in the corner while being fouled with 5:38 left in front of the raucous home crowd.

Months earlier, the Clippers had begun showing early signs of their demise around the trade deadline in early February.

After returning from their final seven-game road trip (due to the Grammys at Arena), the Clippers — at the top of the West standings — didn’t look the same, going 17-16 for the rest of the regular season.

Tucker and Bones Hyland, two players frustrated with their lack of playing time who were not moved at the Feb. 8 trade deadline, were sent home to clear their heads before All-Star weekend. They both rejoined the team after the break.

Injuries to key players didn’t help. Zubac needed time to regain his form after missing nine games with an injury in January and early February. George and Norm Powell would miss a few games due to injuries. And Westbrook broke his left hand and was sidelined for over three weeks in March.

But the moment that altered the Clippers’ season came on March 31. After playing 37 minutes in a win against the Charlotte Hornets, Leonard felt something in his right knee. He began to experience swelling a day later and wouldn’t return until the playoffs.

“That kind of killed our flow,” Lue said of the injuries and minutes restrictions for players coming back.

After a three-week break, Leonard returned and logged 35 minutes in a Game 2 loss to the Mavs. But he experienced swelling in his knee again and was extremely limited in 25 minutes in the following Game 3 loss. Frank said Leonard would remain out until he was able to show he could move like he did in Game 2.

The two-time NBA Finals MVP never returned to the court, leaving the Clippers to wonder whether the approach of playing him 68 games, his most in seven years, was the right one.

“I’m going back to load management!” Lue said with a laugh when asked what the team can do to keep their stars healthy in the postseason. “Naw. Our guys really had their mindset that we’re going to take the season serious. We’re going to play until we are hurt and we can’t play.”

After the Game 6 loss, Harden said he had not thought about his future yet. George wouldn’t offer much more on his Clippers’ future as potential suitors wait to see whether he hits free agency. When asked whether he envisions himself playing long-term alongside Leonard and Harden, George answered, “Yeah.”

“If it works that way, absolutely,” said the All-Star guard, who averaged 22.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and shot career highs of 47.1% from the field, 41.3% from 3 and 90.7% from the line this season.

If the Clippers re-sign George and Harden, both 34, they’ll open Intuit Dome with the core that won them their most regular-season games since 2016-17 and a top-four playoff spot. But the question remains the same as it has for the past four years: Will Ballmer’s stars be healthy at the end of the season?

“I understand the skepticism of, ‘Hey, this is another year where you haven’t had the group [whole],'” said Frank, who explained that the team likely will have to improve by adding complementary pieces.

“But I would guard against the cynicism. Just because it’s happened [four straight seasons] doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen next year.”

George said he couldn’t help but wonder once again how far the Clippers could have gone had Leonard been healthy.

“We played great down that stretch,” George said of the team’s 26-5 run. “We had good wins. We had some ugly wins in that stretch, but we prioritized winning more than anything.

“I thought that was a team that was going to stand the test of time. But obviously that was a healthier version of us.”

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