Maybe the Los Angeles Clippers really are cursed.
It happened again on Friday, that inevitable final chapter that seems to conclude all of their seasons these days. On a seemingly innocuous drive to the rim, Blake Griffin came down wrong, immediately headed to the locker room, and now has been ruled out for the postseason again. It’s the second straight season-ending injury in the playoffs for Griffin, and it’s the fourth year that something has happened to Los Angeles in the postseason.
Griffin seemed to know right away when he left in the second half of Game 3, which the Clippers ended up winning anyway. He whacked a chair in frustration before leaving the court, and the team announced it’s an injury to the plantar plate in his big toe.
After playing only 35 games last season — due to a broken hand from punching a trainer and a recurring quad injury — Griffin had bounced back to play 61, only sitting for one extended stretch in the middle of the year after undergoing a minor arthroscopic knee surgery. Still, it has now been three straight seasons that Griffin has played fewer than 70 games, and it makes you wonder what will happen when he hits free agency this summer.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, who also serves as president of basketball operations, said he wants to keep the team together no matter how the season ends. Certainly, with a 2-1 series lead over Utah and a win despite Griffin leaving, the Clippers’ chances in this series aren’t done yet. (It’ll take a superhuman effort from Chris Paul, but he provided that in Game 3, dropping 34 points and 10 assists.) Still, even if they got to the next round, they would have next-to-no chance against the Warriors.
We can figure out whether bringing the team back or blowing them up makes more sense once we get there. For now, this is just another moment in the unlucky futility of the Clippers franchise.
Last playoffs, it looked like the Clippers might finally be the team catching a break.
To begin the 2016 playoffs, Stephen Curry suffered two separate injuries in the first round. The second, a knee sprain, didn’t have a clear timetable for how quickly he could return, and suddenly the Clippers — who would have played Golden State in the semifinals if both teams advanced — suddenly appeared to have an injury go in their favor for once.
Just 24 hours later, the Clippers announced that Paul and Griffin had been ruled out for the postseason. Paul had broken a bone in his finger, while Griffin had reaggravated his quad injury. Without their two stars, Los Angeles lost in six games to the Portland Trail Blazers and didn’t even get that chance to face a wounded Golden State team.
Two years ago, it was Chris Paul who suffered through the playoffs injured.
Paul suffered a hamstring strain and fought through it to help the Clippers win Game 7 anyway, still the most incredible performance of his career.
However, Paul missed Games 1 and 2 of the following series against Houston, one of which the Clippers lost. Los Angeles built a 3-1 lead, only to blow an unpredictable 19-point lead in Game 6 and fall to the Rockets in Game 7.
The playoffs before that was when Donald Sterling was removed.
Los Angeles led the Warriors 2-1 in the first round before TMZ released audio of Sterling, who had been the Clippers owner for 33 years, making racist comments towards an assistant. The NBA quickly acted to remove Sterling, but the turmoil caught up with the Clippers since actual basketball still had to be played.
Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in the hours following Game 4, the first game played since the news broke and one that the Clippers lost in a blowout.
The Clippers tried. Oh, did they try. One day after being dragged into the center of national outrage with the release of an audio containing racist statements purportedly made by their owner, Donald Sterling, the Clippers tried to play through the storm.
They showed up even though they considered boycotting. They staged a silent pregame protest involving their uniforms even though some friends and family members were urging them to be more militant. This group of mostly African American men truly tried to stay focused for a franchise owned by a guy who allegedly had just been heard disparaging African Americans.
But on this saddest of Sunday afternoons, it was all too much. The turmoil of racism won. The distraction of hate prevailed. The stress of trying to be a national symbol of resilience against a centuries-old demon — while playing a postseason basketball game in the raucous arena of a sizzling opponent, the Golden State Warriors — was overwhelming.
The Clippers won the series in a Game 7, so perhaps it didn’t matter as much as people say. Removing Sterling was clearly a great move for the franchise, even if the timing was poor. However, it clearly caused some distractions on the basketball court itself, and whether it affected their eventual loss to Oklahoma City in the semifinals is anybody’s guess.
The curse continues the further back into the Clippers’ history you go.
The Clipper signed an aging, but still effective, Chauncy Billups in 2011, only for him to immediately break down with injuries and play 42 games across two seasons. Before that, Blake Griffin missed his entire rookie year season with a broken bone in his foot.
The lottery wasn’t kind to Los Angeles, either, when a first-round pick they traded with only a 2.8 percent chance of becoming the top overall pick ended up doing just that in 2011. Instead of the Clipper selecting first overall, the Cavaliers did with their selection, taking Kyrie Irving. (This is why teams so often refuse to trade first rounders without lottery protections on the pick.)
In the mid-2000s, the Clippers were struck ever harder with injuries. Shaun Livingston suffered one of the most infamous and grotesque injuries in basketball when he snapped his left leg in half. And when Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles only eight games into the 2007-08 season, he was never the same player.
As a franchise, the Clippers have never even been to a conference finals, and I’m sure fans can point out another dozen terrible moments of bad luck that has befallen them over the years to prevent that from happening. With Griffin’s injury on Friday, we’re left wondering if this same group of players — who seemed to give the Clippers the best chance of making it there — will even be around next season.