There was a sense of confusion and disbelief after the Clippers lost their third consecutive double-digit lead in their Western Conference semifinal series with the Denver Nuggets. All they needed was one more win to cinch the matchup that the NBA, the fans, and both teams wanted with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Instead, they had 24 hours to leave the bubble after their Game 7 collapse against the Nuggets last Tuesday. They were sent abruptly home after failing to score 100 points in the final game. The fourth quarter was essentially garbage time.
A team with championship aspirations was being humbled. All of the talent — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, former Celtic Marcus Morris, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell — was reduced to having to explain what happened. How come arguably the NBA’s most-talented team lost three straight games to the skilled but flawed Nuggets.
In the spotlight the most was coach Doc Rivers, who left Boston because he didn’t want to endure another rebuilding plan and wanted the challenge of leading the Clippers to unprecedented prosperity.
Instead, the Clippers have blown two 3-1 playoff series leads during his tenure.
“You could just see the difference in the two teams; they’ve been together and we haven’t,” Rivers said. "We didn’t meet [expectations]. That’s the bottom line. I’m the coach and I’ll take any blame for it. If we had [met expectations] in my opinion, we’d still be playing. And although our numbers said we were a good defensive team, I don’t think we realized that part of our game at all.
“It was hard to watch because I’ve got a good group of guys, I really do. Obviously, I could have done something more. I always think it’s me, no matter what. I’ll look at this and try to figure it out. But it’s very disappointing.”
The Clippers admitted they were never as cohesive as the outside public perceived. Williams left the bubble to go to a funeral and then had to spend extra time quarantining after he was photographed attending a strip club. Harrell left the team for nearly a month to attend a funeral. Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet contracted COVID-19.
George acknowledged he was dealing with depression because of being sequestered in the bubble. Honestly, the Clippers were a talented mess that was just hoping their prowess would be good enough to overcome their weaknesses.
“We understood that this was going to take some time,” Williams said. “A lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out, chemistry didn’t. In this series, it failed us. This is our first year together. We’re a highly talented group and we came up short.
"Chemistry is something you’ve got to build, and I thought we were moving in the right direction at the end of the year before the COVID thing happened.”
While Rivers had title aspirations, it was apparent his players didn’t share that sense of urgency.
“It was a great first season with Kawhi. We’re still learning, figuring each other out,” George said. “But I thought we had a great year playing off each other. We can only improve off that. But you want that pressure. First time I’ve been on a team that’s not been considered the underdog, so it was different."
Instead of lamenting a blown 3-1 lead, George appeared to believe next season was more of the target year. George and Leonard have player options in their contracts for the 2021-22 season.
“We have to be positive going forward,” George said. “That’s all we have right now. We’re just positive and optimistic about it.”
But it’s apparent too much pressure was placed on George, Leonard, and the Clippers to reach new heights since that July 2019 night Leonard agreed to sign, and the Clippers acquired George.
“It’s obvious pressure to live up to the title expectation, but as a player you want that,” George said. “But it’s not a cop-out. We didn’t live up to that expectation. But I think internally we’ve always felt this is not a championship-or-bust year for us. We can only get better the more we stay together. The more chemistry for this team, the better. I really think that’s the tale of the tape.”
CALL OF DUTY
Public display of affection
The NBA invited a handful of public address announcers to call games in the bubble despite the lack of fans. The league wanted to replicate a game atmosphere.
Four accepted the offer: Olivier Sedra of the Nets, Kyle Speller of the Nuggets, Tim Sinclair of the Pacers, and Eric Smith of the Clippers. They had to come to Orlando, quarantine, and call multiple games per day.
It’s an unusual responsibility in an unusual time. These PA announcers are used to calling games for their home team three nights a week. But these four were assigned to call every scrimmage, seeding game, and playoff matchup. For three of the announcers who spoke with the Globe, it was an honor to show their skills on the biggest stage.
“I’d like to think I do have a responsibility to the NBA, if they need me or call on me for something, I’m humbled by it,” Sedra said. “I could have never imagined this growing up."
Sedra came to Brooklyn from the Cavaliers, where his baritone voice could be heard saying, “LeBron James!” after a thunderous dunk or stepback 3-pointer. Sedra is one of the more highly regarded PA announcers in the NBA, and he has was delighted by the opportunity to sharpen his pipes to say, “LeBron James” again when he called Lakers games in the bubble.
“It’s going to be fun saying his name again,” Sedra said. “It’s definitely morphed from saying his last name or rolling the ‘L’ in his first or rumbling the ‘R’ and there’s gaps between his first and last name. I guess a player like that, a type of iconic player, allows you to do things like that."
Sedra had a heart-to-heart conversation with his 9-year-old son, Adrian, who lives in Cleveland, about dad having the opportunity to call NBA games over several weeks.
“It’s funny, when it’s my son, I kind of have to see how he feels when I move along,” Sedra said. “So I got the word and presented it to him in a way where I said, ‘I think this could happen,’ to feel him out. And his eyes went wide open and he said, ‘Really?’ And to see that in him, you can’t get me talking about that.”
Sedra had a meeting with the league and told Adrian he would call him afterward with the official word.
“I called him up and said, ‘Yo, I got it,’ and he was so giddy,” Sedra said. “And I knew I was good. Just his reaction, his facial expression, and what he admitted to me is what I needed to see and hear and feel. So I was like, ‘Let’s roll.’ ”
The challenge for Sedra and his colleagues was learning the names of every player in the bubble, how they like that name enunciated, and creating an inflection for each depending on whether they were the home or road team.
“I’ve had opportunities to call different games in different places, and in this case I try to make a connection with each team,” he said. “Some are true and genuine and personal. And teams that I don’t know anybody, you just try to talk to them before the game.”
WORK TO DO
No offseason for Raptors’ Ujiri
The Raptors were eliminated by the Celtics in seven games and saw their reign as champions end. But the organization has no plans to rest on its laurels, especially with several pressing issues this summer.
First is the status of general manager Masai Ujiri, one of the most coveted executives in the NBA. He is entering the final year of his contract and there will be teams that will throw lucrative offers at Ujiri to rebuild their franchises.
Ujiri said he has not had contract extension discussions, but that did not stop him from extending Nick Nurse, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year. Ujiri said it was his priority to extend the team’s leadership under him, and he’s in the process of getting new contracts for other front office members.
Next are the players, and the Raptors have a handful of free agents, including Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. VanVleet teamed with All-Star Kyle Lowry to make up one of the best shooting backcourts in the NBA. Re-signing the 26-year-old VanVleet will be the team’s first priority.
“You want to start with whoever our free agents are,” Ujiri said. "There’s a priority for Fred. We also have to look at the game and see where the game is going. We are all waiting on the cap to see where the numbers fall. We also have to look at free agency in 2021. We have to look at the short-term future and the long-term future.
"This is where we really have to buckle down and make an assessment of what bubble basketball was against what the outside-the-bubble basketball was. This is our time. You support as much as you want during the bubble, during the playoffs. But now is the time to work.
“I’m very confident in our culture and, yes, Fred is a priority, a giant priority. Marc Gasol brings so much to our organization. Serge is a priority. We really have to attack this head-on.”
One of the most disappointing aspects of the Raptors' loss to the Celtics was the performance of All-Star Pascal Siakam, who averaged 14.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and just 38.2 percent shooting from the field. Siakam also missed 28 of 32 3-point attempts in the series. Siakam never appeared comfortable playing in the bubble.
“We talked extensively with Pascal. Everybody stood by Pascal,” Ujiri said. “There’s something about that bubble that brought all of us together. I know Pascal, sometimes we need this almost like a kick in the butt. He’s going to bounce back 100 percent. He felt like he let the team down. Let’s not forget, Pascal helped us win a championship. He’s going to bounce back.”
Ujiri acknowledged it was difficult being sequestered for weeks.
“The mental aspect was hard for me, I can’t even imagine the players,” he said. "See the people you’re competing against each other every day. I saw Brad Stevens every time I went into the elevator or went outside. I could only imagine with the players. The mental aspect of being alone. You don’t know what people are going through outside that’s beyond your control.
“I think it brought some camaraderie to the NBA. I got to know a lot of people.”
The night the Raptors won the championship should have been the greatest night of Ujiri’s life. Instead, it was marred by an incident with an Alameda County (Calif.) sherriff’s deputy, who initiated an altercation as Ujiri tried to walk onto the floor at Oracle Arena to celebrate the win over the Warriors.
Video was released last month showing the deputy, Alan Strickland, making contact with Ujiri and never allowing him to reveal his credential. NBA officials and a representative from Nike intervened, and Ujiri was eventually allowed on floor, but not without having a shoving match with the deputy. Strickland has filed a lawsuit against Ujiri.
“I had my own incident and everybody has dealt with it. There is racism everywhere. Let’s face it, there’s racism in Canada. This is a global pandemic,” Ujiri said. "This was very hard for me. This is the part of the bubble I struggled. When the video came out I didn’t sleep for a few days. You question yourself. As time goes on you begin to doubt yourself, and I doubted myself.
“I watch all these documentaries and I say, ‘Why don’t you just say what happened?’ I began to doubt myself. You have a lot of time to think. I started to think, what if this had gone the total wrong way? You think about everything. You think about racism and where it’s going. There was time I wondered whether Black lives matter to only Black people.”
Ujuri sat in on some of the player meetings after the game boycotts last month. He said he appreciated their efforts and sentiments.
“I know there was definitely a time where my team, we talked about the boycott,” he said. “We talked about the mental fatigue. We talked about Jacob Blake and you could tell there was a mental drain on these players and everybody was tired and we needed to pause. I commend LeBron [James], all these guys, Chris Paul, Jaylen Brown, all these guys. Because they stepped up and said something.”
With the Clippers' collapse, the question is whether the reputations of Tyronn Lue and Sam Cassell, assistants seeking head coaching jobs, took a hit. Lue was viewed as a top candidate in Philadelphia, but that was before Mike D’Antoni decided to leave Houston, and apparently the 76ers job is his if he wants it. The Pelicans and Pacers are also looking for head coaches, but the New Orleans job is likely more suitable for Lue, who coached the Cavaliers to the NBA championship in 2016. The Pelicans want to win now and need a defensive-minded coach who can mold their younger core. Lue sounds like a perfect fit. Cassell has been with the Clippers for several years and is ready for his first top job. But if you’re Houston, Oklahoma City, Indiana, or Chicago, do you take a chance on a first-time head coach? All four franchises are looking for coaches who can establish a culture and win immediately. The offseason coaching search will be interesting and has already gotten off to a surprising start with the Nets' hiring of Steve Nash . . . The Kings hired Rockets assistant GM Monte McNair as their GM and kept former Pistons executive Joe Dumars as a consultant. Former GM Vlade Divac stepped down after the Kings again failed to make the postseason. Kings fans haven’t forgotten Divac passed on Luka Doncic in the draft in favor of Marvin Bagley III, who has been oft-injured during his first two seasons. Also, coach Luke Walton turned former lottery pick Buddy Hield into a sixth man and the former Oklahoma standout is not happy with that role . . . There was a huge moment this past week for Roxbury native Shey Peddy, the Mercury forward who drained the winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the defending WNBA champion Mystics and advance to the second round. Peddy, 31, starred at Melrose High School. She entered the WNBA bubble as a member of the Mystics but was waived. Peddy was quickly signed by the Mercury and she made the biggest shot of her career against her former team.