Column: Clippers take a psychological hit in Game 3 loss to Spurs

Clippers starters (from left) DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul watch from the bench during the fourth quarter of Game 3.

Clippers starters (from left) DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul watch from the bench during the fourth quarter of Game 3.

(Larry W. Smith / EPA)

At least disappointed and disillusioned Clippers fans will have a rallying cry to remember where a season of great promise probably trickled away, not far from the San Antonio River.

Remember the Alamo.

That cry, of course, represented heroism and death. This one merely represented the place where a basketball team, celebrated all season as a contender to hold up the big trophy at the end, began to crumble on a Friday night.

The Clippers came to AT&T Center here to play perhaps the most important game in franchise history to date. That’s especially notable because they haven’t played all that many in a long history of previous mediocrity that goes from Buffalo to San Diego to Donald Sterling.


Now, Sunday, when they play Game 4 here, it really is the most important game in franchise history.

They put themselves in this situation by throwing away the second game of the seven-game series Wednesday night, and with it home-court advantage.

If you think that doesn’t matter as much as everybody talks about in the NBA playoffs, think again.

The home arena was rocking. The Spurs, defending NBA champions — who won Game 2 at Staples Center despite looking old and tired and out of sync — looked like a team of supermen in their own cozy confines. They could smell the home cooking from the hot dog stands.

When 37-year-old Manu Ginobili drove to the basket as the clock ticked down to end the third quarter and made a layup that stretched the Spurs lead to 70-49, the fat lady was well into her warmup routine.

And then there was Kawhi Leonard, the 23-year-old Spurs star from San Diego State and the moon, who, before the game was awarded the league’s defensive-player-of-the-year award. Having achieved that, he went offensive on the Clippers, scoring 32 points and burying any comeback hopes they had with a personal third-period spree.

By the end of that period, he had 29 of his points, and two of those came on an alley-oop that out-alley-ooped anything the Lob City Clippers had done all year.

It almost defied description. He took a lob about eight feet to the right of the basket along the baseline and somehow caught and palmed it in his right hand, flew like an eagle to the basket and slammed home a dunk. The attendance was 18,581, and a good percentage were off their feet or on their back when they saw that.

If the Clippers weren’t destroyed psychologically before then, that had to do it. It’s strange how we have been looking for so long for the next Michael Jordan and haven’t spent enough time checking out San Antonio.

Yes, this made the Spurs’ advantage only 2-1 in the series, but there has seldom been a larger psychological hill to climb in the NBA playoffs than the Clippers face in Game 4.

The postgame coaching assessments were predictable. Coach Gregg Popovich of the Spurs called it “just one of those nights” when his team did everything right and the Clippers did nothing.

“They’re not that bad and we’re not that good,” Popovich said, which is what any NBA coach would say when he still needs two wins to take the series.

Doc Rivers was a bit more forthcoming.

“We just got our butts kicked,” he said. “We’re not that bad.”

Two things could happen from here. The Clippers could somehow make the biggest psychological turnaround seen in a long time in the NBA and steal a home game back. But the chins on the chests of departing Clippers at the end of the game indicated the unlikelihood of that. It is one thing to lose. It is another to get stomped on and embarrassed and dominated in every aspect of the game.

Rivers kept saying, “We lost our spirit.”

Finding it in time for Game 4 is not only crucial, but franchise-changing. If the Clippers go quietly this time, in a first-round series against a team that, while defending champion and still good, should be existing by now on Geritol, it could — and probably would — trigger a team tear-up. Rivers has the power and drive to do this, and few of the current cast would be exempt from trades and nudges to go elsewhere.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, both of whom were lousy Friday night, might be the only untouchables. Maybe not even them.

This is a franchise that has lived on promise now for the last three or four years and fallen short. A first-round series loss this year would be the most severe plunge of disappointment yet.

Popovich, who has lived through years of this — but also won five titles in the process — kept saying afterward, “It’s just one game. It’s over and now it doesn’t matter.”

Oh, but it does, Pop.

It’s just one game if you merely lose. It’s a competitive mind-blower if you get humiliated in every aspect of the game.

Sunday, it will be just one game. But for the Clippers, the ramifications and fallout of losing it are franchise-jolting.

Clippers fans will never forget where it happened. In the city here they always Remember the Alamo.