This looks bad for the Clippers. Really bad.
The way things look right now with every pang so fresh, they slayed a dragon, only to die by bee sting. The way things look right now, in the immediate aftermath of their stunning collapse, it looks as if the Clippers are doomed, cursed and lost to the running clock of history. It looks like the anvil, suspended above them for 82 games and two playoff series, has fallen, crushing the team's dreams that it will ever be anything more than the Clippers we already knew. The eulogies being murmured have the feel of eulogies on the franchise, on the core as we know it, on Chris Paul's career or Blake Griffin's path. Like this failure is terminal.
It's not. Unless the Clippers want it to be.
Yes, that was bad. Those three straight losses to the Rockets should sting badly; only a person with iron skin wouldn't feel it. But they were three losses to an excellent team, two of them on the road, with the Clippers exhausted by a long regular season, a trying first round series and a shallow talent pool affording little rest to the engines of the team. Step outside the narrative, and it's a rather mundane finish to a season that was anything but ordinary.
Once the Rockets made quick work of the dilapidated Mavericks and the Clippers narrowly outlasted the Spurs in that epic series, and once Paul was ruled out for the opener of this round, Houston looked like favorites. You had an L.A. squad that was already exhausted and missing its best player for what would be two games. The Clippers' poor bench meant that Austin Rivers, who was seriously close to being out of the league months ago, had to start. Lester Hudson found himself in the rotation. If Houston would have blitzed the broken, beaten Clippers from the start, no one would have blinked and we wouldn't be burying the Clippers now.
Because L.A. stunned Houston in Game 1 and dominated Games 3 and 4 at home to build a 3-1 series lead, things feel different. The Clippers had no juice in Game 5, couldn't close in Game 6 and couldn't keep up in Game 7. It was all stunning to watch in real time, yet in the wider view it's not all that surprising that L.A. would run out of fuel by the end of a long series.
Watching Chris Paul fight pain and exhaustion in Game 7 against the Spurs made him seem invincible. We found out (for the millionth time in the past decade) that one superhero can't save the world alone. Griffin, who until Game 7 had perhaps the best postseason of any player in the league, had nothing left in his reserves, physically or mentally. (His Game 7 defense was very rough; it looked like his entire physiological system was powering down.) J.J. Redick had the best season of his career, and played like a lost puppy much of Game 7. Jamal Crawford hit some nutty shots over 14 playoff games, but never looked fully back from the calf injury he suffered in March. DeAndre Jordan was fine, but Dwight Howard was better. Is that so shocking?
Austin Rivers is Austin Rivers; Glen Davis is Glen Davis; Matt Barnes is Matt Barnes. What more did you expect? We express shock that Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni performed well for Houston. Is it really all that stunning that those three players are loads better than the Clippers' supplementary cast? Daryl Morey built a much better supporting cast than did Doc Rivers, and it paid off for Houston.
James Harden and Howard were brilliant in Game 7; both have been MVP runners-up, the former this season. Of course they were great! Kevin McHale coached an injury-ridden, mutating roster to 56 wins, the Southwest crown and the No. 2 seed. He took the Rockets to the top spot of a division that sent all five of its teams to the playoffs. Of course he made smart adjustments!
We trick ourselves into thinking we know what's really happening. We author narratives we want to believe will come true. After Game 4, I thought I'd figured out the limitations of Harden and Howard, and against my better judgment wrote them off. How wrong I was. Now we all race to toss the Clippers' future onto 2015's funeral pyre, not because they lost to Houston but because they lost after it looked like they would win. How crazy is that?
Patience is always the play when you're really good. Of course the Clippers need to improve, and that might mean letting DeAndre Jordan walk away if a suitable replacement can be found. It might mean trading Jamal Crawford for a few lesser, but still decent reserves. It might mean chasing every cheap veteran possible to fill out the bench. It almost certainly means upgrading at small forward. It might mean hiring a full-time general manager and taking a chunk of that work away from Doc. It might mean resting CP3 more aggressively in the regular season.
But break up the whole thing because they lost to a slightly better team in the second round of a brutal Western Conference playoffs? That makes no sense. The heat from the wreckage is too hot right now. Only by taking a step back from it and surveying the entire situation can we truly assess what has happened and what should happen next.