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Belief in the Clippers grows as they display staying power in playoffs

Clippers are one victory from advancing to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history

Doc Rivers has repeated it all season like a mantra. Whenever he's faced questions about his team's inconsistent play or ineffective bench or injured stars, the Clippers coach often responded with the same four words.

"I like this team," Rivers said.

His belief is catching on. The Clippers have become the NBA's playoff darlings after seizing a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals that resume with Game 5 on Tuesday at Toyota Center.

ESPN's Basketball Power Index has given the Clippers a 40.7% chance to win the championship, the highest percentage among the eight remaining playoff teams. Even Lakers legend Magic Johnson believes in a longtime rival that is one victory from advancing to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

"I never thought I would say this," Johnson tweeted Monday, "but I think the Clippers can win the NBA championship. They have a little bit of everything …

"The Clippers have outside shooting, Blake [Griffin] is dominating, the best leader and coach in Chris Paul & Doc Rivers and great team defense!"

It's a bit premature to say this series is over even if it feels like it after two consecutive Clippers blowouts. Of all the NBA teams to face a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series, eight have come back to win.

Of course, 219 have not. Series, Clippers?

"That's a silly thought," Rivers said Monday of thinking ahead to the conference finals. "We haven't done it. For us, we've got to stay focused. We've got to win a series, and that hasn't happened yet."

There's one statistical nugget that favors the Rockets at least sending the series back to Staples Center for Game 6: Houston has not lost three consecutive games all season, going 7-0 after back-to-back losses.

The best predictor of success in the series has been the third quarter. The Clippers outscored Houston in that quarter by margins of 37-27 in Game 1, 35-19 in Game 3 and 43-25 in Game 4 on the way to double-digit victories. In the Rockets' Game 2 triumph, they outscored the Clippers, 27-20, in the third quarter.

The Clippers had never held a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals before this series, but they have been one victory from advancing to the conference finals twice, most recently against the Phoenix Suns in 2006.

Then the Clippers, led by Elton Brand, went to Phoenix for Game 7 and were outscored, 45-0, in three-pointers at US Airways Center during a 20-point loss.

There was talk of it being a first step toward contender status before the Clippers quickly retreated into NBA irrelevancy, until Paul joined Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in December 2011.

"We cannot be a one-shot wonder," then-Clippers guard and current assistant coach Sam Cassell said after the Suns series. "We cannot be Milli Vanilli. We have to be the Jacksons."

Blake & the Gang has displayed the staying power none of its predecessors could manage, making a franchise-record four consecutive playoff appearances. Now it's on the verge of another franchise first.

"It's an accomplishment," Griffin said Sunday of the possibility of reaching the conference finals, "but it's not our final place where we want to be."

Said Paul: "It's about us, not about the Clippers' franchise [history] and all that."

The Clippers weren't always a trendy pick to go deep in the playoffs. All you have to do is go back three weeks.

Rivers had a team employee distribute predictions before the start of the Clippers' first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs showing that 46 of 47 prognosticators had picked the Spurs to win.

The Clippers, of course, prevailed in seven games. It was a victory forged in the belief of those who mattered — the players.

"It's an intangible thing," Rivers said. "You've got to believe. You really do. And I think our guys do. They've done it all year. They really have."

They're apparently no longer the only ones who feel that way.


Twitter: @latbbolch

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.

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