The Clippers are still the Clippers, and they're still cursed

All of Steve Ballmer's billions couldn't get the Clippers to play like anything other than a cursed team

The new owner stood underneath the basket with arms folded and jaw tight while his players trudged past without looking at him.

Steve Ballmer and his billions didn't matter.

The famous coach followed his team off the court with eyes glazed and head shaking, his swagger having long become a stagger.

Doc Rivers and his championship pedigree didn't matter.

After undergoing a radical transformation, Los Angeles' reborn professional basketball team added to its sordid history Sunday, struck down by a 31-year curse disguised on this day as the Houston Rockets.

The Clippers are still the Clippers.

Mere weeks after the greatest victory in franchise history, they ended their season Sunday crushed by the weight of one of the greatest collapses in L.A. sports history. They blew a three-games-to-one lead and lost a deciding Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals to the Rockets, 113-100.

It was a chance to advance to a conference finals for the first time in the franchise's 45-year history, yet they didn't lead the Rockets for even one second.

It was the most important moment since this team arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, yet they bungled passes, kicked dribbles, blew one dunk so bad the crowd laughed, missed three-quarters of their three-point shots, and were congratulating the Rockets even before the game ended.

"We got destroyed," Rivers said.

It crushed their flashy new narrative, one in which Los Angeles' second-string NBA team was finally going to step out of the Lakers' shadows after Ballmer bought the team from the league-banned Donald Sterling last summer.

"You hate to equate sports with, like, death, but it does feel like a wake, or a funeral right now," said the Clippers' J.J. Redick.

It wasn't that they lost this series, it was how they lost it. After defeating the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in a first-round series that included a memorable last-second Game 7 victory, they finished this series with three of their worst losses ever.

"It feels like a bad dream," said the Clippers' Jamal Crawford.

The Clippers blew out the Rockets twice at Staples Center last weekend to take a 3-1 series lead. Only eight of 228 teams in NBA history had blown such an advantage to lose a playoff series. It was a lock. For the first time, the Clippers were going to advance to the conference finals.

"We had three chances to get it done," Crawford said. "And we didn't."

They lost Game 5 in Houston by 21, without putting up a fight. Then they led Game 6 in Los Angeles by 19 points late in the third quarter, yet crumbled to lose by a dozen.

All of which led to Sunday, when they still had a chance to overcome their past, forge a new history, break the Clipper Curse.

 

Then the opening tip happened and it was the same old Clippers. They made five dumb mistakes in the first five minutes. They clearly weren't yet big enough for this giant moment.

Remember how Ballmer's voice boomed during his introductory news conference in August when he shouted, "We're going to be hard core! Hard core! Hard core!" Remember how he promised the Clippers would keep, "coming and coming and coming and coming and coming!" Remember the buzzword that was printed on those free T-shirts promising "relentless?"

In the end, they were hardcore tentative, relentlessly reluctant, and it was only that curse that kept coming.

Chris Paul, whose last-second shot won the series against the Spurs, couldn't find his teammates in the right place. Blake Griffin, who elevated his game to an elite level during this postseason, couldn't hold on to the ball. DeAndre Jordan, as usual, couldn't even make one-third of his free throws.

"We just didn't bring it," Griffin said.

They play for an owner who once shouted, "Nothing gets in our way!" Yet they just didn't bring it? How does that happen? Though Rivers said he wants to keep his three stars together, expect the Clippers to make some changes to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Afterward, Ballmer addressed the club in terms that included enough profanity that players describing his speech noted they were cleaning it up.

"He said it was a really bad situation to be in, but that he really believed in us," said Austin Rivers, the coach's son and backup guard.

Yet everyone walked away surely believing in that curse, which seems stronger today than ever.

The curse is more than a succession of bad seasons. It has been blamed for multiple injuries suffered by top draft picks and trade acquisitions — everything from Danny Manning's torn knee to Griffin's torn knee — as well as constant hijinks by its former owner, who would give lewd locker room speeches and heckle his own players during games.

Donald Sterling may be gone, but his imprint remains. Shelly Sterling may be gone, but it might not be a coincidence that she sat courtside during the Game 6 collapse.

"We're going to break this, we are," Doc Rivers said Sunday. "It's my goal, it's why I came here, I thought we had it. We just have to keep at the fire, that's it."

That was some fire, huh? For long moments this spring, it lit up the fresh faces of Los Angeles' long-shadowed basketball team. But in the final moments Sunday, stoked by their inability to overcome their dark history, it consumed them.

Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke

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