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Clippers have to close in pivotal playoff games or they are finished

Clippers' mistakes in pivotal playoff games show they still have to learn how to close to be taken seriously

It's the final seconds of a pivotal playoff game. The Clippers are within a dribble of a defining victory.

A ball squirts loose. A play breaks down. A shot goes wild.

A star stumbles. Another star gets lost. There is shouting, stomping, gesturing, confusion.

The Clippers lose the lead. The Clippers lose the game. The Clippers blame themselves and promise they will learn.

It happened Wednesday against San Antonio. It happened last spring against Oklahoma City. It happened before that against Golden State.

After 15 postseason games over the last two seasons, the education of the best Clippers team in franchise history is creeping along so slowly and painfully, it might be fair to wonder whether these guys will ever learn.

So far, these Clippers aren't closers. They can run, fly and fight. They can attack, defend and demoralize. But they just can't seem to consistently finish off potential victories in postseason games, and one has to wonder whether that failing will eventually blow up both their season and their roster.

"We've got to finish, we've been talking about it all season long,'' said Chris Paul on Wednesday night after the Clippers lost the second game of their first-round playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs, 111-107, in overtime, despite having the ball and the lead in the final seconds of regulation.

Fifteen games is obviously a small sample size. But with this group's age and contract situations, they don't have time for a large sample size. The window is closing on 29-year-old Paul, the contract is almost up on DeAndre Jordan, and its been four years since Blake Griffin dunked over a car.

These last two seasons may be their first serious playoff ride together, but it also could be their last, especially if this team of drama majors can't figure out how to write an ending.

In the last two postseasons, the Clippers have played six games decided by four points or less. They have won only two of those games, and only once did that involve an aggressive closing kick, and that was by a guy — Darren Collison — who is no longer a Clipper.

What happened Wednesday night against the Spurs when Blake "Curly Neal'' Griffin ended up with confetti on his head was just the latest in a string of late Clippers breakdowns.

In last year's playoff opener against Golden State, with the game tied in the final minute, the Clippers finished by missing all three of their field goal attempts and both of their free throws while committing two turnovers in a 109-105 loss.

"We made too many mistakes to win,'' said Coach Doc Rivers afterward.

In last year's Game 6 against Golden State, when trailing by two points in the final minute, the Clippers made just one of four shots in a 100-99 loss.

"I thought they came up with just enough plays to beat us,'' said Rivers at the time.

All of which paled in comparison to the seven-point lead they lost in the final 50 seconds in Game 5 of the second-round series against Oklahoma City, the final stretch including two Paul turnovers and his bad foul on three-point-slinging Russell Westbrook.

"None of this would have happened if we'd taken care of business,'' Rivers said at the time. "That didn't happen.''

Fast forward nearly a year to Wednesday night, when that sad refrain repeated itself once more in the final seconds after Griffin lost the ball and eventually the lead by attempting to dribble twice through his legs. Later, Paul missed a jumper at the buzzer, and then during the overtime it became even uglier. There was a bad pass by Paul, a bad pass by Griffin, a lost ball by Jordan, and then a slow roll by nearly the entire Clippers team on a fast-break layup by Patty Mills.

The backup Spurs guard beat four Clippers down the court, causing Paul to jump up and down on the floor in anger while staring at Griffin. The layup gave the Spurs as four-point lead they never lost and afterward, well, here was the coach again.

"We still had a chance, and you could say, should have won the game, but we didn't,'' said Rivers.

Few would disagree that, even though they must hurdle the defending champion Spurs, the Clippers are good enough to at least win two rounds in this postseason and advance to their first conference finals.

But, if indeed the essence of a team is never more transparent than during crunch time, few would also disagree that there's something missing.

You wonder. Is Paul commanding the sort of confidence and support that a leader must have down the stretch? Have the other players, particularly Griffin and Jordan, completely bought into Paul's fiery style? There was talk earlier this season of locker-room unrest, but Rivers said things were fine late in the season. Are they still fine?

You wonder. How much of a strain is the understaffed Clippers bench placing on the starters down the stretch? As most Clippers fans feared, their subs have been sunk, outscored, 91-39, in two games with Jamal Crawford the only one offering a substantial contribution. In fact, Spencer Hawes, their prize off-season bench acquisition, has been on the court for only a total of three minutes. On Wednesday night, this led to Paul, Griffin, J.J. Redick and Jordan each playing at least 43 minutes. The only Spur with as many minutes was Tim Duncan.

The speculation momentarily ceases and the play begins again Friday in Game 3 in San Antonio, where the Clippers must win at least one of two games if they hope to survive.

"You know, we've been through a lot of ups and downs, and it does one of two things to your team,'' Rivers said Wednesday. "It tears you apart or it kind of brings you together."

Every indication is that their travails have brought the Clippers together, but only until the most important moments of their season, the final minutes of a playoff game, when they continue to struggle with the look of a team torn apart.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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