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Column: It’s another year of waiting for the Clippers breakthrough, and it’s getting old

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer consoles forward Robert Covington after a 105-101 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer consoles forward Robert Covington after a 105-101 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Once again, it’s wait ‘til next year for the Clippers. It always is.

The team that made a habit of staging exhilarating second-half comebacks this season under the clever guidance of coach Tyronn Lue, that prided itself on clawing and scratching to remain competitive and earn the eighth-best record in the West even though Kawhi Leonard never played and Paul George missed a big chunk of the season, became the team that twice couldn’t hold sizeable leads when a ticket to the playoffs was on the line.

They had two chances to get past the NBA’s contrived play-in format and earn a spot in the playoffs. Two chances to make one. They whiffed.

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“You don’t like to see it end like that,” Lue said after the Clippers’ 105-101 loss to New Orleans on Friday at Crypto.com Arena. “We knew [about] the play-in before the start of the season. But it’s tough.”

Missing leading scorer Paul George (protocols), the Clippers rallied from a big deficit before giving up their own lead and losing 105-101 to New Orleans in a season-ending play-in game.

April 15, 2022

First, they couldn’t hold a seven-point lead at Minnesota on Tuesday after Karl-Anthony Towns had fouled out and they scored only 20 points in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Timberwolves. Given a second chance at home on Friday against the late-blooming Pelicans, the Clippers overcame the unexpected absence of George, who had entered COVID protocols earlier in the day, and the continued injury absence of three-point maestro Luke Kennard to lead by 13 points in the fourth quarter after trailing by 16 in the first half.

The Pelicans, equally well-coached by former Clipper Willie Green, didn’t waver. In a moment captured by TV microphones before the fourth quarter he told his players they had absorbed the Clippers’ best punch yet were down by only 10. “We ain’t giving it up. You’ve got to fight,” he told them.

They outfought the Clippers, who had been relying on a tighter rotation by using a small lineup and simply wore out. The Clippers’ season-long rebounding woes hurt them again with no additional chances to fix them, and they faded badly, outscored 31-17 by New Orleans in the fourth quarter.

“I mean, it was a good season,” Marcus Morris Sr. said. “Obviously we wanted to make the playoffs. From the season we had, all the ups and downs, we deserved to. Give them credit, they played well, stayed resilient when they was down, got the win.”

The Clippers fell short of the playoffs with injuries and COVID hurting their chances until the final game Friday. They still have plans for a title run.

April 16, 2022

The arena, often rollicking and deafeningly loud when the Clippers were at their peak, grew quiet as reality set in among fans and it became obvious the Clippers didn’t have another miracle comeback left.

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“This one is a tough loss to take,” Reggie Jackson said. “Had a chance. Two cracks at it. Didn’t get in, unfortunately.”

Afterward, Lue and his players spoke about the closeness they had developed during the many ups and downs this season, praising their growth as individuals and as a team. It took a lot of believing in Lue and in each other and a lot of tenacity to finish at 42-40, their 11th straight season of compiling at least a .500 record, and there’s a lot to admire in that.

They also became accustomed to dealing with adversity, compensating for injuries and the COVID-related issues that nearly all NBA teams faced at one time or another. They get points for resilience, but that doesn’t win championships.

“I know we didn’t make the playoffs,” Lue said, “but considering all the things that went on this year, I’m very proud of our guys.”

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson lofts a shot over Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. and guard CJ McCollum.
Clippers guard Reggie Jackson lofts a shot over Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) and guard CJ McCollum (3) during the second half on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

They hope to be back together they said, though it’s too early to guess what might happen over the summer. Most players were too dazed to get into specifics Friday, still absorbing the finality of the loss that ended their season and sent the Pelicans — who won six fewer games than the Clippers during the regular season — to a first-round playoff series against the No. 1 Phoenix Suns.

The Clippers probably wouldn’t have had much success against Phoenix but they didn’t even give themselves a chance despite getting two shots at it.

“Sad today,” Nicolas Batum said. “Yes, it sucks. We wanted to play against Phoenix. Bang, move on, we see what happens next.”

As in wait ‘til next year. Again.

The problem with that philosophy is there are no guarantees that Leonard will be his old self next season or that the chemistry will be the same or that someone else won’t get hurt and thin their depth. That elusive triumphant “next year” seemed very far off Friday, but Jackson saw it otherwise.

“I don’t look at it as a failed season. Moreso of a season to learn from,” said Jackson, whose 27-point, eight-assist performance inspired the sellout crowd to repeatedly chant his first name. “I think as long as we approach it like that, hopefully God willing we can get everybody healthy, it will be another fun season next year. I’d like to see how the guys mesh, how we all mesh.”

Mostly, how they’d mesh with Leonard and George.

“I think the sky’s the limit when you get those two,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be about hopefully getting them healthy, meshing and everybody improving individually, then us coming together as a collective to figure out how we can be better as a team, hit the ground running next year.”

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It’s wait ‘til next year for the Clippers. It always is, and that’s getting tired.

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