They played big, overwhelmed but not overwhelmed, overwhelmed but never overwhelmed.
The Clippers Curse played bigger.
They stayed with the heavily favored Phoenix Suns until the final frantic moments, clinging to a few baskets in the closing bars of the clock and hanging around while the crowd roared with desperate hope.
The Clippers curse hung around longer.
The Suns held off the Clippers 129-124 Thursday at Crypto.com Arena to take a two-game-to-one lead in their first-round playoff series while the game’s dominant force threatened with a sprained right side on the bench of the Clippers, knees stirred.
The Clippers Curse is still undefeated.
This time it wasn’t about an inflated series leadership or a racist owner or Flop City. This time, word only broke hours before the tip, and at that point, amazingly enough, it surfaced in Kawhi Leonard’s recent injury to wreak havoc on a franchise that’s been hit with bad news annually.
Are you kidding me?
In one minute, the Clippers went into that important Game 3 with elation, Leonard was playing in another universe, his size unmatched, his potential limitless.
In the next minute, despite no visible signs of stress, Leonard was declared with a sprained right knee and the Clippers were cooked.
No word on the severity of the sprain. No timetable for a return. And make no mistake, despite their valiant effort on Thursday – Norman Powell scored 42 points! – You have no chance of winning this series without Leonard’s presence to cover the earlier loss of an ailing Paul George.
The Clippers are now 3-10 without Leonard and George in the lineup, not good numbers for a team that has suffered two losses from dying out of the playoffs.
“I mean, it’s very depressing,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said, before shaking his head and frowning after his usual sorcery just couldn’t save a team trying to beat three future Hall of Famers. “Our guys have been through a lot this year … to get to the point where we made the playoffs and we’re feeling pretty good outside of the PG fallout … if that happens … it’s a blow.”
Lue fixed his gaze and shrugged.
“But there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “We just have to come out and compete like we did tonight.”
Gosh how they competed, outclassing the bigger Suns in paint while harnessing Russell Westbrook’s energy — 30 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds — and capturing shooting through the wonderfully named Bones Hyland.
But without Leonard’s defense, they were almost helpless against Devin Booker’s 45 points and Kevin Durant’s 28, and without Leonard’s offense, they forced their way into 18 turnovers. Leonard is arguably the game’s biggest active postseason player when he’s healthy, and how can the Clippers ever replace that?
“I mean, I just feel sorry for him,” Westbrook said of Leonard. “He probably played his best basketball in a while, quite frankly probably the best in the world. It just sucks for him mentally.”
It’s the Clippers curse. No load management can fix that. No billionaire cheering the baseline can control it. It taunts and teases and finally mentally crushes and has haunted this team since they first arrived in Los Angeles 39 years ago.
The Curse saddled the franchise with the despicable Donald Sterling, with two losing three-game-to-one leads in the playoffs, with an implosion of an incredibly talented group called Lob City, and finally with a serious knee injury to Leonard that prevented them from doing so Advance to the NBA Finals in 2021.
This time, yes, same Leonard, same knee, same aarrgh.
Despite a scintillating renovation by gifted owner Steve Ballmer, which includes plans to move to a new Inglewood arena in 2024, The Curse’s scars deepen with each passing season.
They have never won a championship in the franchise’s 54-year history, stretching back to its origins in Buffalo and San Diego. In fact, they’ve never made it to the NBA Finals.
Four seasons ago Ballmer boldly declared war on The Curse by signing Leonard and trading for George and what has happened since?
In 2020, they gambled away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in a postseason streak that would have given them a historic showdown with the Lakers.
In 2021, they reached their first Western Conference Finals before Leonard’s knee injury stopped them.
Last year Leonard missed the whole season and they couldn’t survive the play-in tournament.
This season should be different. This season, Leonard and George would be healthy and resilient and ready to roll, and even a late-season sprained knee from George wouldn’t stop them.
When Leonard was brilliant against the Suns in an upset Game 1 win with 38 points in 42 minutes, Lue couldn’t help but brag.
“We saved for that,” replies Lue to critics of the annoying load management.
Leonard was almost as great in a Game 2 loss, scoring 31 points in 39 minutes.
Then, two days later, during Thursday morning’s shooting, it was discovered seemingly out of nowhere that he wasn’t healthy enough to play.
“He had it at the end of Game 1. It’s the playoffs so he wanted to fight his way through. Obviously he was able to play through Game 2,” said Lawrence Frank, president of the Clippers’ basketball operations. “The symptoms worsened after Game 2 and we ruled him out.”
So strange. Leonard was never on the Clippers’ injury report. He was never seen limping, even walking the arena aisles before the game.
The only explanation, of course, is the Clippers curse, and now one has to wonder.
Unless Leonard recovers quickly and returns to this series and the Clippers retire early… will management wave the white flag on this Leonard-George tandem and part them for some more reliable plays this summer?
If not, will the esteemed Lue remain as a coach through another disheveled season of load management priority and injury uncertainty?
So many potential questions and so few answers in a night where the final say belonged once again to the strongest force in the franchise.
Clippers Curse, have you no mercy?