CLIPPERS
Column

If Clippers lose Game 7, they must change to emerge from lifelong muck

Game 7 for Clippers isn't just win or go home, it's a game changer for franchise, Bill Plaschke writes

It happened so fast. It could change so much.

In a matter of a few numbing minutes Thursday, the Clippers turned the franchise's greatest victory into its worst loss, thus creating the need to fly 1,500 miles to face its most defining game.

The most compelling consequence for the Clippers in their Game 6 meltdown against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals isn't only that they have to play at least 48 more minutes, but that they may have to reassess their entire future.

LIVE UPDATES: Clippers vs. Rockets, Game 7

For the Clippers, this is not only a Game 7, it's a Game Changer.

When the two teams meet at the Toyota Center on Sunday afternoon here, the Clippers will have to do more than shake off the reality they blew a 19-point lead in the final 15 minutes in a potential close-out game in a 119-107 loss Thursday at Staples Center. They have to reach beyond the hard truth they once led this series three games to one and since have lost twice while being outscored by 33 points.

The bottom line here is the Clippers face a bottom line that will underscore their immediate and long-term future.

If they beat the Rockets and advance to the conference finals for the first time in the franchise's 45-year history, the events of the last week will be as quickly forgotten as their cheesy halftime shows. Houston who? Meltdown when? Hack-a-what? Bring on Golden State!

However, if they lose to the Rockets and remain mired in their lifelong muck, their collapse in both Game 6 and the entire series becomes an indelible legend that will raise serious questions.

For all their talent, does this Clippers roster have the right mix for a championship? What would it mean that they can survive the mighty San Antonio Spurs and then lose to the seemingly inferior Rockets? What would be wrong with this picture? A loss could lead Clippers management to play out what would previously seem to be the most outrageous scenarios.

Sounds crazy, but maybe they talk about breaking up the Big Three. If Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can't advance further under Doc Rivers than Vinny Del Negro, if these core stars can't be more successful under Steve Ballmer than Donald Sterling, if the trio can't get it done in four years together, then maybe the bosses would think about change.

Would a loss to Houston mean they would entertain trade offers for Griffin, maybe think about sending him back to Oklahoma for potential free agent Kevin Durant? No player in the NBA has made a bigger leap toward greatness this postseason than Griffin, but what good are those highlight videos if they can't get them past the second round?

Would a loss mean that maybe management decides, no, this is Griffin's team now, and Paul would be expendable? It's impossible to imagine the Clippers parting ways with their emotional leader, but because he never would have advanced to a conference finals in his 10-year career, maybe they want to give the ball to somebody else?

Then there's potential free agent Jordan, who, by NBA rules, can re-sign here for millions more than anyone else can offer him. But if he doesn't see a championship in this team's future, maybe he starts to wonder whether it's worth it to stick around as a third option instead of going somewhere he could be the star? He wouldn't be the first big man to leave Los Angeles for less money, just look across the floor at No. 12 for the Rockets.

Besides looking at its best players — as well as obviously looking at its underachieving bench — the front office would also have to look in a mirror. If the Clippers survive this second round, the public criticism of Doc Rivers as a general manager probably would subside. Austin Rivers can be effective in spots and even Spencer Hawes has seemed to find his game recently. But if the Clippers lose to Houston, then Rivers' second job title will be questioned even more, as his acquisitions lacked the spark to aid his exhausted core stars.

Maybe Ballmer asks Rivers to simply coach and allow someone else to make the personnel decisions. Maybe the entire front-office power structure changes. Maybe Rivers' actual coaching even takes some heat, especially considering some folks thought he should have done more to change the tempo and slow the onslaught during Thursday's meltdown. The thought here, though, is that Rivers has still done a terrific job changing the culture in his two years and should be not damaged by another premature exit.

But if the Clippers lose Sunday, something will have to change. The Clippers not only owe that to themselves, but their long-suffering fans who, judging from emails received here after Thursday night, have just about had enough.

The Clippers are now approaching the Lakers in ticket prices, amazingly charging even more than the Lakers for courtside seats. The Clippers also are approaching the Lakers in expectations, with elite players and an elite coach who should rise to elite levels.

To steal a phrase from Kobe Bryant, if the Clippers want to wear big-boy pants, it's time to suck in, button up, and do it now.

For them, Game 7 is not only a must-win, but a bust-loss.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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