Spurs power forward Tim Duncan blocks a shot by Clippers power forward Blake… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The end is near, no matter what the Clippers say, no matter which cliche they attempt to utter, no matter how much more stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin try to coax out of their bodies.
And the end of the Clippers' season could come as soon as Sunday, as soon as they are finished playing Game 4 to complete a rare playoff back-to-back at Staples Center.
In what Paul described as a "devastating" defeat, the Clippers squandered a 24-point second-quarter lead and were pushed to the brink of elimination by the San Antonio Spurs, who defeated them, 96-86, Saturday afternoon in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
It left the Clippers down, 3-0, in the best-of-seven series.
It also left them contemplating how they could have blown a 40-16 lead.
And finally they were left to ponder how they could make the impossible happen, how to do what no NBA team ever has — win a playoff series after trailing 3-0.
"It's worth a try," Paul said. "It's worth a try."
Paul (strained right hip flexor) and Griffin (sprained right knee) both tried to play through their injuries.
Griffin had some success early, scoring 20 points in the first half and finishing with 28 points and 16 rebounds.
"If we don't play with that sense of urgency, it's not going to be pretty," Griffin said about Game 4. "We don't have any time to let a play go or let a loose ball go — anything like that. You've got to dig deep and find something and make it work."
Paul had a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists, but he appeared to lack his usual explosiveness, his five-for-17 shooting a sign of weary legs.
"I'm fine. I'm all good and well," Paul said, repeating his familiar refrain since he was injured in Game 5 of the first-round series against Memphis. "I'm just missing."
San Antonio had four players score in double figures and was led by double-doubles from Tony Parker (23 points and 10 assists) and Tim Duncan' (19 points, 13 rebounds).
The Spurs were so efficient — at least after the Clippers outscored them 33-11 in the first quarter — that Griffin had to smile when asked what he and his team could do to emulate San Antonio.
"Seventeen in a row would be nice," he said.
There is that, the Spurs having won 17 straight games dating to the regular season, including all seven in the playoffs.
It didn't look good for San Antonio when the Clippers were dominating early, Griffin leading the charge with 14 first-quarter points.
But the Spurs just chipped away in the last nine minutes of the second quarter, getting to within 10 points by halftime.
"You knew they were going to make a run," Griffin said. "It was just a matter of trying to withstand it and still play through it, still hit shots and lock in defensively. They are too good a team to take a loss like that. They walk you down."
It was more like the Spurs ran the Clippers down in the third, staging a basketball clinic while outscoring them 26-8 to open a 69-61 lead that the Clippers never overcame.
The Clippers, who shot 20% (four for 20) from the field in the third, were outscored 80-46 over the final 33 minutes after taking their 40-16 lead.
"It wasn't that we had a big lead and relaxed," Paul said. "Momentum just changed and we couldn't stop it. Everybody knows how explosive they are offensively, but we just couldn't get a stop."
When the Clippers tried to get a sniff of momentum after the Spurs opened an 11-point lead in the fourth, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich had Reggie Evans intentionally fouled on three consecutive possessions.
Evans missed four of six free throws, just another sign, perhaps, of the Clippers' season nearing the end.
"We've just obviously got to keep working," Griffin said. "We obviously can't give up now."