They were only a dozen minutes from survival, a dozen minutes from playing one more game, a dozen minutes from keeping the magic alive and the season in play.
But it was, finally, a journey too far, a hill too steep, a dozen minutes too many.
The Clippers, after leading the Oklahoma City Thunder by as many as 16 points, entered the fourth quarter Thursday in a tie game, needing only one last push to win Game 6 of this second-round series and force one last battle.
It was too much. The Thunder was too much. The Clippers didn't have enough, Chris Paul couldn't carry any more, Blake Griffin couldn't push any harder. The Thunder pounded the Clippers from the furious beginning of the quarter until the final paralyzing minutes, dragging the league's most bedraggled playoff team into summer and ending a turbulent three-week saga in stifling defeat.
The final score was Oklahoma City 104, Clippers 98, and that is the end of that.
The end of another failed Clippers postseason? No, the end of the most glorious of Clippers postseasons.
The stat sheets will remember this only as a four-games-to-two defeat in the second round, but the history books will remember this as what is surely the most turmoil-wracked spring by any team in NBA history, and the Clippers' resilience deserves to be honored.
That's exactly what happened late Thursday as Staples Center remained filled until the end, thousands standing and cheering and literally waving goodbye to a group that had just staggered through the strangest of journeys.
“We had incredible moments together and bonded together as one Clipper Nation like never before,” intoned public address announcer Eric Smith.
They finished two wins shy of their first appearance in a conference finals, finished in the exact same spot as two seasons ago, and on the surface it would appear new Coach Doc Rivers ultimately did no better than old coach Vinny Del Negro.
Oh, but this was so much different. They are gone from the postseason, but in many ways they already won the postseason, capturing the hearts of America with their endurance in the wake of the distractions caused by their hate-spewing owner. Even the staunchest of Lakers fans, a guy named Jack Nicholson, showed up courtside Thursday night to pay his respects.
“Obviously it's nothing that anybody wants to go through,'' said Rivers afterward. “I thought our fan base ... and the city … and our guys really hung in there.”
The Clippers won a first-round series against Golden State even though, in the middle of the series, Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life after the release of an audiotape in which he was heard making racist comments.
The Clippers played through a protest that included wearing their shooting shirts inside out. They played through the threat of a boycott. They played through the pressure from family and friends to just quit playing.
“You don't get a chance to be on teams like this that often,'' said Paul.
“It's crazy that it's over. We really do have a great team ... it's tough to realize it's over.''
After winning a Game 7 in that first round, the Clippers pushed the superior Thunder to six games in the second round even though, right in the middle of the series, both Donald Sterling and his estranged wife, Shelly, conducted nationally televised interviews during which they both claimed they would not give up the team despite NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's mission to make them sell.
It was a nightmare. It was a mess. In Game 4 against the Thunder, the Clippers won after coming back from a 16-point deficit with nine minutes left.
Yet a game later, it was the Clippers who blew a 13-point deficit in the last four minutes to lose.
Late Thursday, when asked whether the Sterling debacle ultimately weighed his team down, Rivers finally answered yes.
“I think a lot of stuff, yeah,'' he said. “The playoffs are hard enough without any of this stuff, so....''
Then came Thursday's fourth quarter, during which the Thunder charged out to a 10-point lead in the first six minutes, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook making their shots while the Clippers never seemed to get into their offense.
Paul committed two turnovers in the quarter, Griffin scored just two baskets in the quarter, and the exhausted team never found its flow.
The Clippers were not only outscored by six in the fourth quarter, but by 14 in the second half.
“I personally thought at halftime, we never got our energy back,” said Rivers. “We tried. That's all you can do.”
Now it just gets harder. Donald Sterling's lawyer Maxwell M. Blecher has reportedly sent a letter to the league vowing that Sterling would not pay his $2.5-million fine, a sign of the fight that awaits.
If the NBA thinks everyone understands the removal of Sterling could take months, the NBA is seriously misguided. The league's players want Sterling gone before the start of next season. The Clippers players will be faced with enormous pressure to refuse to wear a Clippers uniform next season if Sterling is still in charge. Rivers will face the same pressure to remain as coach.
“I think I'm prepared for somewhat of a messy summer, mentally at least,” said Rivers. “I just think it's going that way.”
On a night the Clippers finally succumbed, it was clear that Donald Sterling has not.
On a night the fight was valiantly lost, the fight was just beginning.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times