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Clippers' bittersweet ending is just the beginning for a team that has a bright future

Almost to the very end, well past the time it had become clear that Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors would not be denied and would no longer be delayed in closing out their first-round playoff series, the Clippers kept fighting, refusing to concede in spite of the math and in the face of a stunning performance by the nearly unstoppable Durant.

The Clippers’ season ended Friday at Staples Center with a 129-110 loss to the two-time defending champion Warriors in Game 6, but their time to shine as a team is just beginning. The crowd knew it, giving standing ovations to veterans Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell and poised rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as they were taken out of the game with a few minutes left. Patrick Beverley, who was removed at the same time, appeared to have tears in his eyes. He didn’t want the season to end. Neither did the fans, who stood throughout the final minutes.

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But they all have much more to look forward to than anyone could have imagined when this season began.

“I’ve never been more proud of a team, a group of guys, in the 20 years that I’ve coached,” Doc Rivers said. “I never had a group where in the morning, you raced to the car, you raced to practice, because you just loved being around them. So for me, it was just a pleasure to coach them.”

Expected to crumble when they traded their best player, Tobias Harris, at the trade deadline, they instead united and established a don’t-mess-with-us identity. They won as a team, with a snarl or two and a refreshingly selfless style that became their new normal.

Expected to be blown out by the Warriors and saddled with prohibitive odds, the Clippers set an NBA record with their comeback from a 31-point deficit in Game 2 and staved off elimination in Game 5 in the hostile confines of Oracle Arena.

When the Warriors’ focus wavered, the Clippers were in their faces, feisty and determined and always pushing back.

“I love their team. I just love how they compete and fight, fight for each other. That’s a beautiful basketball team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They made us work for everything. They’ve got a bright future and Doc did a great job with them all year. The young guys are impressive. It was a tough, tough series.”

But there’s a reason NBA teams covet and construct their rosters around superstars, and Durant gave 50 of those reasons Friday night while overshadowing

Draymond Green’s triple-double of 16 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were the difference-makers in other games, and the Clippers simply couldn’t match that depth of skill.

And yet, Rivers wouldn’t have had the matchup turn out any other way because it provided such a profound lesson to his players, especially the youngsters.

“I think they’ve learned now that it’s more than talent, and it takes an amazing amount of focus and preparation to be a champion,” Rivers said. “Hats off to them, but good for us. I couldn’t be more thrilled. It was a pleasure, honestly for us to play them.”

The Clippers have built something good here, something not tainted by egos or power struggles, and they can enhance it this summer with smart moves in the free-agent market. They’ve become an attractive

landing spot for a top-tier player and they have a lot to sell.

“When I see the Clippers I see a team building a foundation, something substantial, something real, and you can see what they’ve done and how special this team has been,” Kerr said. “The remarkable thing has been they traded their best player and got better. Think about that. And Tobias Harris was having an All-Star year. So between that trade, and the Memphis trade, and you think about who they picked up, [Wilson] Chandler, [Garrett] Temple, [JaMychal] Green and the draft picks and continue to play well. It’s a great story. It’s a model for other teams, I think, to compete and rebuild at the same time. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

After the trade, Rivers wasn’t sure he could sell his remaining players on the notion they could compete while club executives cleared salary cap space and collected draft picks for the future. “I don’t know if they believed it early. They couldn’t have,” he said.

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A comeback from a 28-point deficit at Boston on Feb. 9 that featured strong performances from some of their newcomers was a big turning point.

“I think that rekindled the guys who were already there. I think that saved our season,” Rivers said.

What a season it was. They flirted with finishing as high as fourth in the West, which would have allowed them to avoid facing Golden State in the first round, but no other matchup would have been favorable enough to make enough of a difference. A year from now, that can and should be different. Something began here, something good, on the night their season ended. Next season can’t come soon enough.

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