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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Alexander: Comeback Clippers rekindle memories

There is something about dogged determination that catches the eye. Can we suggest, then, that the current batch of Clippers – down two superstars but full of confidence when the odds are steepest against them – are tremendously fun to watch even while scrambling to get to .500?

Yeah, I know. They don’t hang banners for just being fun to watch. As difficult as the road has been health-wise for superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, when they are healthy they make the Clippers a legitimate championship threat. Without them, it’s the NBA equivalent of bailing water and hollering for help.

Except these guys don’t wait to be rescued.

And I suppose we should specify: The fun to watch part is when they rally to chop down a big deficit, as they did again Tuesday night in Washington, DC, for the second time in five days and the third time in two weeks. The early parts of games, when those deficits are being built? Not so fun. Maybe Clipper fans need a “rally alert” app on their phones. Feel free to turn the channel when the fellas get behind by a bunch, but be ready to tune back in when the comeback starts.

Tuesday night they spotted the Wizards a 35-point lead, trailing 66-31 with 1:20 left in the first half. They cut it to 30 by halftime and to 17 by the end of the third quarter, and won it with Luke Kennard scoring a Reggie Miller-like seven points in the final nine seconds for a 116-115 victory, matching the second-biggest comeback since the NBA began keeping track of such things.

This is on top of the 24-point comeback to win at Philadelphia last Friday, and the 25-point comeback to beat Denver at home on Jan. 11. And if you are a Clippers fan, doesn’t this all remind you of the 2018-19 team?

That was the roster that inspired the club’s “streetlights over spotlights” ad campaign, a bunch of guys who might not make all-star teams but were exactly the gritty types you’d pick while choosing sides on the playground. That bunch, with Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley leading the way, wiped out a 31-point road deficit in the playoffs against a Golden State Warriors team ultimately headed for the NBA Finals. Remember the 6-foot-1 Beverley guarding 6-10 Kevin Durant and acting like no one should consider it unusual?

I wrote it then about that team, and it bears repeating now with this group. If you coach a high school or youth team, the least you can do is send a thank you card to the Clippers’ offices for the example their team has set for your players when it comes to competing.

That 2018-19 team earned coast-to-coast recognition for that Game 2 playoff comeback against the then-defending champs, after trailing 94-63 with 7½ minutes left in the third quarter. But they’d rallied from deficits of 15 points or more to win nine times in the regular season, including a 28-point deficit at the end of a road trip in Boston right after the trade deadline.

Different players for the most part – Ivica Zubac is the only holdover – and different coaches, but the feeling in the locker room, on the bench and on the court seems similar.

“Just guys fighting until the very end,” Kennard said Tuesday night. “That is what we kept telling each other: Just a little bit at a time.

“We had that belief in the back of our mind before we even went out there in the second half, because we had done it before. But this was a little bit more, so we had to just give a little bit more.”

Here’s an indication of the attitude and cohesion that leads to moments like this: The young guys, Justise Winslow and Jay Scrubb and Isaiah Hartenstein and Brandon Boston Jr., carried most of the load down the stretch in Washington. The veterans, guys like Zubac and Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, were up off the bench cheering and urging the youngsters on.

This isn’t something you turn on and off. You won’t always complete the comeback, but it’s about an attitude and a culture that keeps players striving. With a coach like Ty Lue, who overcame a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals with Cleveland in 2016, there might be no lead too large to stare down.

“I think it started last year,” Lue said via Zoom before Wednesday night’s game in Orlando, noting that players had to step up their games when Leonard and George were unavailable at various times, fought back from 2-0 deficits in each playoff series and got to Game 6 of the conference finals without Leonard.

“No matter who’s on the floor, we thought we had a chance to win,” Lue said. “And our guys competed and fought every single night.

“You’re going to have tough games when you’re missing your two best players. There are going to be nights when you can’t score, nights you can’t get stops, and we understand that. But we’re playing hard, we’re competing, we’re playing the right way, (and) you can live with the results.”

If this sounds familiar … well, retired Voice of the Clippers Ralph Lawler would agree. He, too, notices the similarity to 2018-19, which was his last season behind the mic before turning it over to Brian Sieman.

“They just have that little special bond that allows them to do the improbable,” Lawler told Mirjam Swanson of the Southern California News Group on Wednesday.

“And if they can somehow get their two stars back and sneak into that play-in tournament, they’ll have a real chance to be a team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs, and that would be something.”

You’d need more than a “rally alert” app then, for sure.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

World Nation News Desk
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