Doc Rivers eased his way into a media room inside Staples Center on Saturday afternoon and plopped in a chair, his dark blue tie askew and his shirt soaked from a hard day’s work with his team. Rivers leaned forward as he spoke, deciding for the first time all season that he would open with a statement about the merits of his team.
The Clippers had just played their 80th regular-season game of this NBA season, a 134-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets that eliminated L.A. from Western Conference playoff contention.
Rivers wanted to extol the virtues of his group after the Clippers’ hopes of advancing to their seventh consecutive postseason were dashed.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team that didn’t make the playoffs,” Rivers said. “This team has been through so much all year.”
The season began with Chris Paul in Houston following an offseason trade, J.J. Redick in Philadelphia after leaving as a free agent, Jamal Crawford in Minnesota after having been traded to Atlanta, and with nine new players on the Clippers roster.
They eventually traded Blake Griffin, Brice Johnson and Willie Reed to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and draft picks.
Rivers said they fought hard and survived to the final week despite a multitude of injuries — 11 players have missed a total of 252 games this season.
The Clippers started an NBA-high 35 different lineups because of the injuries. Rivers at times was forced to start C.J. Williams and Tyrone Wallace, who had been signed to play for the Clippers’ NBA development league team, the Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario.
But with players like Lou Williams, DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Harris, the Clippers kept pushing forward until they ran into a string of playoff-bound teams and contenders that handed them four losses in the last five games.
“I don’t think I have been more proud of a group, maybe ever, than I have of this group,” said Rivers, who is in his 19th season as a coach. “We have asked a lot of guys to do stuff that they should not have had to do and yet they did it. You look at this team and you see the whole backcourt basically out.”
The Clippers lost Chris Paul’s replacement, veteran point guard Patrick Beverly, at the start of the season because of an injury. Starting small forward Danilo Gallinari, backup point guard Milos Teodosic and Bradley missed extensive time throughout the season because of injuries.
“Four or five of your starters, from the beginning of the year, have been out most of the year and yet we kept winning,” Rivers said. “You know I have gotten a lot of credit, but I’m telling you it is the guys. It is them. They have been so easy to coach, and so it is easy for coaches to look good when you have a bunch of guys that are easy to coach. And that was this group.”
The Nuggets, fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the West, were led Saturday by Nikola Jokic, who had a triple-double with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, while Will Barton added 31 points. Denver led by 11 points after one quarter, 13 at halftime and 19 entering the fourth. Williams led the Clippers with 24 points and Jordan had 16 points and 17 rebounds.
The Clippers have two regular-season games left at home, Monday night against the New Orleans Pelicans and Wednesday night against the Lakers, but those are two games left just to try to improve their record.
The Clippers (42-38) and a second Western Conference team will miss the playoffs despite winning records.
“Not the year that I wanted. Not the year that I thought we would have,” Rivers said. “But it is the year that happened. … I think we are headed in the right direction and I would love to have gotten this group, over any group, in the playoffs because I just thought with their effort and the things that they have been through, they really deserved it.”