Column

Clippers' massive letdown in big loss to Warriors can't be overlooked

The sound was exactly what everyone envisioned on this first big night of the season, Staples Center filled with screams and shrieks and wonder.

But the noise was coming from Golden State Warriors fans.

The sight was exactly what everyone predicted, a desperate team making a bold statement against a close rival.

But that team was, yeah, the Golden State Warriors.

Everything was in place Wednesday night for a celebrated meeting between the two best teams in the Western Conference and a potential preview for a spring showdown.

Everything, that is, except the Clippers.

They didn’t show up. They didn’t compete. They filled the arena with expectation and then turned it over to the Warriors, who owned the building, owned the night, and owned every bit of the Clippers’ spirit.

The final score was Warriors 115, Clippers 98, and you have to wonder.

Is this what it’s going to look like for two weeks in May? Are the Clippers even going to survive long enough to meet the Warriors in May?

A Clippers season that began with 14 wins in 16 games amid talk that they might be one of only two teams who could actually beat the Super Warriors has now officially reached its first detour into doubt.

Five losses in seven games. Seven consecutive losses to the Warriors over three seasons. And, now, a Wednesday night effort so befuddling, one of the Hollywood witnesses couldn’t hide his emotion.

Late in the third quarter, with the Clippers trailing by 19, Chris Rock looked over at press row and offered an exaggerated shrug. Even a guy who makes a career out of jokes couldn’t understand this mess.

“It wasn’t much of a game,” said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers afterward. “You go into a game really wanting to do well, things don’t go well for you and you lose it sometimes.”

Blake Griffin missed 15 of 20 shots. J.J. Redick disappeared amid a Warriors defense that is always a lousy matchup for him, as he made just one shot. The Clippers finished with 14 turnovers that knocked them loopy.

“Our spirit wasn’t right,” said Chris Paul. “We gave them a lot of baskets.”

Their spirit wasn’t right? How can that be? How could a team that has been together as long as the Clippers still lose that spirit within minutes?

The game was over before it started. The Clippers were outhustled, outmanuevered, and completely frustrated from the opening tip.

Within the first three minutes, Paul screamed at the officials and was hit with a technical foul. Within the first seven minutes, the Clippers had six turnovers. The Warriors’ first 13 baskets came on 12 assists.

One team was moving the ball. The other team was not. One team was defending at the rim. The other team was not. The Warriors were playing like the powerhouse with the best record in basketball. The Clippers were playing as if overcome with awe.

“We set the tone early, just turned the ball over, they took us out of our stuff, we stopped trusting,” said Rivers. “I never thought we got our spirit back after the beginning.”

By the end of the first dozen minutes, the Warriors led by 18 points, matching their biggest first-quarter lead over the Clippers in 207 meetings.

The place was rocking with the roar of Warriors fans, and while one can’t blame Clippers season- ticket holders for making big bucks by selling their seats for this marquee matchup, one also has to again wonder.

When will the Clippers become the sort of destination team whose tickets will be valued as priceless by their fans for every game?

It certainly wasn’t Wednesday, which continued to slog along amid what was surely the Clippers’ worst nightmare about their biggest night.

At one point midway through the third quarter, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were 0 for 10 combined from beyond the three-point arc and the Warriors still led by 17.

Shortly therafter, the Warriors showed why. On one possession they had two offensive rebounds resulting in three different attacks that ended up with a screaming dunk by Draymond Green

On their next possession, four Warriors touched the ball amid an array of passes that ended with Durant’s three-pointer. The only Warrior not involved in the possession was Curry, who stood in the corner with his arms raised as if he just knew somebody was going to make a shot.

The game ended in an array of hard Clippers fouls and whining and, yes, Rivers was even assessed a technical foul. By the final few minutes, it seemed like only Warriors fans remained, and here is something else about the Clippers that makes you wonder. 

What happens if this last-stand season ends with a similar drop to the knees? What if the Clippers don’t finally advance to at least the Western Conference finals for the first time in club history?

It stands to reason that if these Clippers don’t figure this out, they will no longer be these Clippers. Paul and Griffin can both opt out of their contracts this summer, becoming free agents, and it would be surprising if they both wanted to stick around and take another shot at something that hasn’t worked in six years.

If Griffin or Paul or both of them leave, can one imagine Rivers wanting to stick around for the rebuilding? Isn’t that why he left Boston, to avoid the rebuilding?

This will be a monumental few months for the Clippers, with the future of the Steve Ballmer era perhaps in the balance. Will they take the next step toward becoming the elite team they can and should be? Or are their fans looking at a short spring that, this time, could turn into another series of endless, familiar winters?

If Wednesday was the first step in this final journey, it was a face plant. The Warriors flattened them. It was easy to see. All you had to do was listen.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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