Friday, May 16, 2014

Why The Clippers Didn't Win

Just because the Clippers and Wizards lost on the same night doesn't mean they're similar teams.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

With a 104-98 win Thursday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder knocked the Los Angeles Clippers out of the playoffs. Technically speaking, this puts the Clippers on the same "level" as the Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, and Portland Trail Blazers - they're all teams that lost in Round 2. But that isn't being fair to the Clippers.

Really, you can't say that the Clippers "lost." You can just say that they didn't win. Teams reach a certain point where the only things that separates success from failure are matchups, luck, and the breaks of the game. The Clippers lost to Oklahoma City four games to two, but the cumulative score of the series was 643-638 in favor of the Thunder. It doesn't get any closer than that. The series was swung by two 50-50 calls that went to the Thunder instead of the Clippers in Game 5, and uncharacteristically poor three-point shooting (outside of Chris Paul's 8-for-9 outburst in Game 1, the Clippers were just 44-for-142 from three in the series - 30.9 percent).

Somehow, this will be used as a referendum on Paul's entire career to this point - despite the fact that Paul averaged a 23/12 in the series and spent a good portion of the last three games guarding Kevin Durant, who is a foot taller than he is. Paul has never appeared in the Conference Finals, let alone reaching the NBA Finals or winning a title. Paul doesn't suffer quite the same scrutiny that say, LeBron did prior to winning the 2012 Championship, and I suspect a lot of that has to do with the fact that he's never won an MVP award (he should have in 2008 but that's a whole different story), but the fact remains that many talking-head types have publicly said that his playoff failures (or, least his lack of playoff success) tarnish his legacy.

It's a flawed premise that we've seen time and again to be reductive and reactionary. Miami was a whisker away from losing the NBA Finals last year, but because they won, LeBron James is unimpeachable, despite the fact that it was an offensive rebound by Chris Bosh and a ridiculous three by Ray Allen that saved Miami's season. Chris Paul didn't wake up this morning as a worse basketball player than he did yesterday, other than the infinitesimal attrition that Father Time may have inflicted overnight. He's the same exact guy - he just won't be playing any more basketball this season.

The Clippers got knocked out on the same night as the Washington Wizards. That connects them only in chronology, not in quality. In fact, the Clippers would have easily dispatched of all the other Round 2 "losers" just as quickly as the teams that beat them (and in the case of Washington, probably quicker than Indiana did). The Clippers lost in Round 2, but they're significantly closer in quality to the teams that advanced to the teams that didn't. They're probably better than Indiana. But bad luck and little else puts them on the outside looking in. 

The reason Oklahoma City is moving on and the Clippers aren't is pretty much the same reason Miami won the title last year and San Antonio didn't - a few instances of dumb luck and that pesky little rule that says one team has to win and one team has to lose.

It's unfortunate that this Clippers season ended so unceremoniously. Losing in Round 2 is the most boring way to go out. Losing in Round 1 is the most disappointing, losing in the Conference Finals or NBA Finals is heartbreaking. Losing in Round 2 means you just float away. And this Clippers team, after what they've been through this year, shouldn't just float away into nothingness.

The Clippers had an average scoring margin this season of +6.98, the second-best in the league. When was the last time a team had an average scoring margin that high, lost in the second round, and it wasn't a shocking upset? The Clippers might be the best team ever to lose in Round 2 without some crazy fluke upset. But because they lost in Round 2, they'll be forgotten, and Chris Paul takes another body blow to his "legacy."

The Clippers have been eliminated from the playoffs, through not much fault of their own. They just drew the short straw. Sometimes there just isn't anyone to blame. Those are the breaks of the game.

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