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Column: Clippers take their foot off the gas ahead of what could be their last playoff ride together

This has always been the best time of the year for the Clippers, these first few days in April, these last few moments of infinite promise before the reality of the playoffs.

The Clippers are hot! The Clippers are dangerous! The Clippers are going to surprise!

This spring has been different. You could sense it at the Staples Center on Saturday when they hosted the Lakers. You could feel it in the restrained crowd, see it in the frustrated players, and almost hear the dread cutting through the noise and smoke and soaring T-shirts.

The Clippers are disjointed. The Clippers are dispirited. The Clippers are going bust.

The Clippers won by 11 points, but, because they were playing Team Tank, they should have won by three times that much. The final score was 115-104, but the game began with the Clippers leading 17-0 — not a misprint — and they led by 21 points at the start of the third quarter.

What happened next was that the Clippers starters were outplayed by a lineup of Brandon Ingram, David Nwaba, Tyler Ennis, Tarik Black and Thomas Robinson. The Clippers were outhustled, outrun, outreached, and nearly taken out of the game before D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson came off the bench and played the Lakers back into oblivion.

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“We took our foot off the gas, it is a little disconcerting to me, a little concerning,” Blake Griffin said afterward. “We got to figure it out. We’ve got to be better.’’

The Clippers won, but these last few weeks have felt like a loss. The Clippers hung together, but it feels like they are slowly breaking apart.

Since starting the season 14-2, they have gone 33-29. With four games left in the regular season, they are surrounded not by the usual hype, but almost by a tinge of sadness, as if cheering them into the postseason is like saying goodbye to an old friend.

This summer both Chris Paul and Griffin can opt out of their contracts and become free agents, while J.J. Redick will be a free agent. A core group that spent the last six years dramatically elevating the Clippers’ status here could soon be gutted.

Unless they can show some progress and advance to the conference finals for the first time, it is hard to imagine Paul and Griffin wanting to stick around and try it together again. Next season could be feature a vastly different group that would test the faith of all their new fans and the patience with their increased ticket prices.

So a strong Clippers playoff run will be required to prevent a big chunk of those Clippers from disappearing. But as Saturday showed, those hopes are slowly dwindling. At this rate, they would be fortunate to survive a first-round series against home-court-owning Utah.

“We hope [people] think we can be good, some people don’t, there’s more talk that we can’t, to be honest with you,’’ Coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s up to us to prove it, but we can’t prove it until the playoffs start.’’

They’ve proved just the opposite in recent weeks with the botched final seconds against Dallas, the blown 18-point lead in the fourth quarter against Sacramento, and the desultory final quarter against Phoenix.

And now this, 17 turnovers and two fewer rebounds and being outscored by 10 points in the fourth quarter against a white-flagging Laker team whose most coveted win would be a top-three pick in this summer’s draft.

‘’We play two good quarters … two good quarters … it has to be three and four,’’ Griffin said. ‘’Putting a whole game together is what we need. You can’t win games in playoffs playing inconsistently. I just know we can’t do this in the playoffs and win games. We have to be better.”

Rivers was asked if he could see what was happening late in games. Stunningly for Doc, he couldn’t give a complete answer.

“Yeah, I can,’’ he said. “I’m not going to talk about it, but I clearly see it.’’

Anybody who has watched them struggle in big moments in the previous six springs can also see it, and, sorry Doc, but everybody talks about it. For whatever reason, Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan don’t always seem to mesh during big moments. There is a continuity missing. There is a confidence lacking. There is a big hole in The Big Three, perhaps big enough to eventually split them up, and that would be too bad. Just as the Clippers are finally establishing roots, they could soon be plowed over.

Early in Saturday’s game, Griffin became the first player to score 10,000 points as a Clipper, and afterward there could have been talk of permanence and legacy. I even asked him if he wanted to be a Clipper for life. He didn’t want to discuss it.

“I’ve loved my time here, absolutely, but I’m focused right now on this season,’’ Griffin said. “I’m not doing the whole free-agency talk, I’ve not had any thought about any decision I can’t make right now.’’

Of course he doesn’t know. When it comes to the Clippers’ immediate future, nobody knows anything. But after five years of hoping for the best, folks are now bracing for the worst.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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