What goes around comes around, even if it takes a six-year orbit, even if most of us thought there would be an NFL team and a four-year college and a Shake Shack on Mars before we would see the Clippers do what they did Friday night.
They did not come off the floor to catch and stuff and mount the Utah Jazz in Game 6. They came from under the floor and through six feet of dirt.
They trailed by 25 points in the third quarter. They won the second half, 81-48, got 39 points from a second-round draft choice, and got a 131-119 win that puts them into the Western Conference finals for the very first time. The fact that they’ll play Game 1 on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. PT in Phoenix might seem a little extreme, but maybe it’s best not to interrupt the Clippers’ roll.
“That was basketball right there,” forward Nicolas Batum said later, pointing back toward the direction of a court that had tilted against them so maliciously, so many times before. “‘A big crowd, and we missed them, too. But that was basketball.”
And even though nearly every molecule of this franchise is different from 2015, no Clippers fan could fail to connect the dots.
For once the base can look back to Game 6 of that conference semifinal series and exhale. The Clippers spent most of that night on the edge of perfection. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were 20 for 27 from the field at one point. They led the Houston Rockets by 19 points with 2:35 left in the third quarter.
Then the cliff crumbled, and Houston beat the Clippers from that point, 49-18, including 40-15 in the fourth quarter. For a full house at Staples Center, it was like watching an iceberg collapse, frame-by-frame. The Rockets won, 119-107, and finished the job in Game 7 in Texas.
There was another connective aspect. Just as these Clippers won Game 5 in Utah and Game 6 at Staples without Kawhi Leonard, Houston overtook those Clippers with James Harden on the bench, a decision by Coach Kevin McHale, throughout that fourth quarter.
There is always a time when a franchise, or an athlete, has to quit denying its history and strike a blow for liberty. Sometimes, it’s Mookie Betts making a catch beyond the general imagination, or Scott Spiezio backspinning a three-run home run with a 5-0 deficit and helping turn elimination into survival, or Teemu Selanne floating a puck into a Detroit net in Game 5 overtime.
The Clippers have had moments like that in both series they’ve won. They’ve left Dallas’ Luka Doncic behind. They’ve squeezed past Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. They’ve done it with superior numbers and with a refusal to absorb the defeatism that seems to come with the uniform.
“I’ve been here for a while, I’ve been through it, I’ve seen friends get traded,” said guard Patrick Beverley, who hit two enormous 3-pointers from the corner late in the fourth quarter when the Jazz still had a pulse. “We’ve been working to become that grit-and-grind team.”
And they did it Friday night after Utah’s Jordan Clarkson had torched them with 22 points in the second quarter, in a half that ranged from shock to panic.
“We had been taking a lot of bad shots,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. “We talked about getting into the paint, and if we did that, then (Utah center) Rudy Gobert would have to help and our guys could get open looks. We said to just keep passing it around, don’t take it personal.”
It helped that Mitchell’s chronic ankle issue was beginning to rebel, as it had near the end of Game 5 in Utah. But the Clippers went to a zone to break up Utah’s rhythm, and Clarkson, like a thunderstorm, sort of moved out of the area. He was scoreless after halftime.
A slide rule isn’t necessary to conclude that an 81-point half is a fairly epicurean pace. But here, Terance Mann shot 10 for 13 in that second half and scored 25 points after he had scored 12 in the first quarter. Mann, who had totaled 25 points through the first five games, hit 3-pointers, rummaged for loose balls and scored inside on Gobert. He broke up Utah passes, and he matched Mitchell’s 39 points for the game.
When it was over, Batum was bellowing, “M-V-P,” and Mann was momentarily stumped when it came time to remember his totals.
“Come on,” Paul George, his All-Star teammate, teased him. “You know how many you had.”
“Well, I looked up once and I had 34,” Mann said. “That’s the last thing I remember.”But Reggie Jackson continues to be the Clippers’ one-stop-shopping solution. He was 5 for 5 in the fourth quarter with five assists, and scored 27 points overall, after his own scoreless first quarter. Up by three, he bounced a perfect pass to Mann for a layup and a 111-106 lead. He drove and scored on Gobert for a six-point lead. He drove again and lofted the ball above the square and watched it drop in for a 10-point lead. Every time he gained the lane, the Clippers got an unaccompanied shot and, often enough, drilled it.
“Pat Bev said it at halftime,” Jackson said. “He said not to worry about the offense. We were making mistakes in our defensive schemes, we weren’t making them feel us. We had to get some turnovers, take it to offense, make them lose some of our guys, and try to attack Rudy instead of him attacking us.
“I’ve seen it all year. Guys coming in to work hard, countless hours. Guys going through frustrations but for the right reasons, because they want to be a great team. It’s a band of brothers right now. We’ve believed when nobody else does.”
Believing requires seeing. As for 9:45 p.m. PDT on Friday night, there was indisputable video evidence of the Same New Clippers.