The Los Angeles Clippers were on the brink of a trip to the Western Conference Finals with a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. While the Clippers had never reached the conference finals in franchise history, this year was supposed to be different after acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George over the offseason. Anything less than a championship was going to be considered a disappointment.
With the Lakers advancing past the Houston Rockets in five games in the second round, it sure seemed like the Battle of Los Angeles in the conference finals that felt inevitable all season was about to happen. That’s when the LA started to unravel:
- The Clippers blew a 15-point lead to lose Game 5
- The Clippers blew a 19-point second half lead to lose Game 6
- The Clippers totally collapsed in the fourth quarter to lose Game 7
Just like that, the Clippers’ season is over. Denver came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz in round one, and did it again in the second round against a more powerful Clippers team. It’s a feeling Clippers coach Doc Rivers knows all too well.
Of the 13 teams to come back from a 3-1 playoff deficit in NBA history, Rivers has been on the losing side three different times in three different decades. Rivers won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and helped the team reach the Finals in 2010, but it’s impossible to ignore all of the blown playoff series he’s been a part of after Boston’s charmed run.
Here’s a look back at Doc Rivers’ worst moments as a playoff coach.
2003: Rivers’ Orlando Magic blow a 3-1 lead to the Detroit Pistons
The No. 8 seed Orlando Magic weren’t supposed to have a chance against the No. 1 seed Detroit Pistons. Orlando had finished 42-40 and lost Grant Hill to scary complications from season-ending ankle surgery during the regular season. The Pistons, meanwhile, were the only team in the East to win 50 games.
Orlando did have one thing going for them: the league’s best scorer in Tracy McGrady. McGrady averaged better than 32 points per game to win his first scoring title that year. In the Game 1 of the series, with high schooler LeBron James in the stands, McGrady dropped 43 points to power Orlando to the victory.
Detroit would win Game 2, but Orlando took Game 3 and Game 4 to surge ahead to a 3-1 series lead. Then the Pistons reeled off three straight victories to win the series.
Pistons coach Rick Carlisle made more adjustments than Rivers in the series, most notably using rookie wing Tayshaun Prince as a defender on McGrady after he earned a DNP in Game 1. Prince would go on to be a big piece of the Pistons’ rotation throughout the playoffs before they were eliminated by Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets in the conference finals. The Pistons would win the championship the next year after hiring Larry Brown as head coach and trading for Rasheed Wallace.
Rivers would be fired by the Magic the following year after starting the season 1-10. He was hired by the Boston Celtics the next season.
2015: the Clippers blow a 3-1 to the Houston Rockets
The Clippers enjoyed perhaps their greatest moment in franchise history when they outlasted the Spurs in Game 7 of their first round playoff series in 2015. Chris Paul hit the game-winner, but he also suffered a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the first two games of the team’s second round series against the Houston Rockets.
The Clips stunned the Rockets in Game 1 without Paul, then lost Game 2. LA roared back to win Game 3 and Game 4 with CP3 in the lineup, putting them ahead 3-1 and on the brink of the first conference finals appearance for both Paul and the franchise. You already know what happens next.
After losing Game 5, the Clippers were in position to close out the series in Game 6. Los Angeles led Houston 87-68 late in the second half. Houston coach Kevin McHale famously decided to leave James Harden on the bench for almost the entirety of the fourth quarter, but the Rockets’ bench lineup led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer pulled out one of the most shocking upsets in NBA history.
The Rockets would win Game 7 and advance to the conference finals, where they lost to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. The Clippers were never really the same after blowing what felt like their best chance. LA would lose in the first round the next two years before dealing both Paul and co-star Blake Griffin.
The Athletic had a great look back at the adjustments Rivers could have made on the five-year anniversary of the loss. It’s true that LA had basically zero depth that season, but Rivers still could have played Jamal Crawford and his son Austin less while boosting minutes for a versatile defender in Matt Barnes. The Clippers also could have run the offense more through Griffin, who has becoming a legitimate playmaker at that point in his career.
2020: Possibly the Clippers worst collapse yet
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Clippers over the last three games of their series against Denver. Los Angeles’ depth — thought to be a major asset coming into the season — proved to be underwhelming, with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell notably struggling throughout the end of the series. The Clippers’ stars weren’t much better. In Game 7, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both failed to score in the fourth quarter. The game plan was faulty as well, with Rivers deciding to double-team Denver star Nikola Jokic in the post on every touch despite the fact that Jokic is the best passing center ever.
Again, the pass is great, but it's the perfect timing & passing when LAC is most vulnerable that is impressive here.— T.J. McBride (@TJMcBrideNBA) September 16, 2020
As the double comes & Grant cuts into the paint & Jokic knows exactly how LAC will rotate.
He waits for Morris to commit to the cutter & hits Harris for 3. pic.twitter.com/R6uho742ZO
Perhaps more than anything, the Clippers simply failed to execute. The collapse against Denver certainly isn’t all on Rivers, it’s on every member of the team that let it happen. There are some alarming trends for both the coach and the team at this point, though.
Rivers hasn’t just blown 3-1 leads, he’s also blown three separate 3-2 series leads, including one in the 2010 Finals:
Doc Rivers has coached SIX teams that have blown 3-1 or 3-2 series leads:— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) September 16, 2020
2020 Round 2 vs Nuggets, 3-1 lead
2015 Round 2 vs Rockets, 3-1 lead
2012 East Finals vs Heat, 3-2 lead
2010 NBA Finals vs Lakers, 3-2 lead
2009 Round 2 vs Magic, 3-2 lead
2003 Round 1 vs Pistons, 3-1 lead
For the Clippers, it’s their sixth blown series lead in their last seven playoff appearances. SB Nation’s Whitney Medworth chronicled the Clippers’ playoff disappointment back in 2017.
2013: 2-0 lead against the Grizzlies
The Clippers blew a good old fashioned lead to the Grizzlies this year.
2014: 1-0 lead against the Thunder
Donald Sterling’s TMZ tape was released this postseason. And while they beat the Warriors in Round 1, who knows what kind of effect that had later on.
2015: 3-1 lead against the Rockets
Chris Paul played through a tough hamstring injury and despite building a 3-1 lead, they still let it slip away.
2016: 2-0 lead against the Trail Blazers
Paul and Blake Griffin both went out with season-ending injuries before Game 3.
2017: 2-1 lead against the Utah Jazz
After going up 2-1 in the series, the Clippers lost Griffin to injury.
Does this mean Rivers is a bad coach? Of course not. He’s a champion for a reason, and is said to have a rare ability to manage superstar egos. Part of coaching is being a leader and commanding the respect of a locker room, and few are better than Rivers at that. Who could forget Rivers’ powerful plea for social justice back in late August?
Doc Rivers with raw emotion and a thunderbolt cry for justice: "All you hear is Donald Trump & all of them talking about fear. We're the ones getting killed. We're the ones getting shot...It's amazing, we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back." pic.twitter.com/19dHu9UlZ5— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) August 26, 2020
Where Rivers occasionally falls short is in making mid-series adjustments in the playoffs. Some coaches prefer to stick the game plan they tried to perfect all year and trust their team will eventually win with their bread-and-butter strategy. Rivers fits under that category. Other coaches throw everything at the wall and try to manufacture any advantage they can as they see what works and what doesn’t over the course of a series. Carlisle has a reputation for being a coach that adjusts on the fly, and Toronto’s Nick Nurse famously experimented with a variety of strategies last year during the Raptors’ run to an unlikely championship.
Rivers won’t be fired even after such a bad playoff collapse against Denver. He’s reportedly a big reason why Kawhi Leonard decided to sign with the team:
Playing for Doc Rivers was a major component in Kawhi Leonard joining the Clippers.— Clips Nation (@clipsnation) September 16, 2020
Rivers will be running it back next season, according to @ChrisBHaynes
Perhaps the Clippers will retool their roster over the long offseason to push the team over the hump. Maybe they just need to have some better luck on open shots, or show more discipline in executing their game plan.
The Clippers will be in contention to win a title as long as they have Leonard, but there’s no doubt this season qualifies as a major disappointment with a second round playoff exit. It’s just that maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised, given the history of the franchise and its head coach.