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Clippers on verge of playoff breakdown

BEN BOLCH / ON THE NBA

A loss to Grizzlies in Game 6 would be a big step backward even for a franchise with a history of defeat.

May 01, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) tries to control the ball as Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph reaches around him in the second half of Game 5 on Tuesday at Staples Center.
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) tries to control the ball as Grizzlies… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

An air of finality might be the closest they get to catching a whiff of the Finals.

The Lakers are done. The Clippers could be by Friday night.

And to think some people actually wrote that these teams could go all the way.

Oh, right. Sorry about that.

Given the expectations, this could easily go down as the most disappointing NBA season in L.A. in the 29 years the city has hosted two teams.

The Lakers were presumed Finals contenders who were supposed to challenge the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72 regular-season victories. They fell only 27 victories short.

The Lakers did end up making history, getting bounced out of the playoffs in four games for the first time in 46 years.

The Clippers entered the season a trendy pick to make the Western Conference finals. They're now one defeat away from setting sail in reverse.

A season-ending loss to Memphis on Friday in Game 6 of their first-round series wouldn't be so bad had the Clippers not beaten the Grizzlies with Rudy Gay in the playoffs only one year ago.

You don't go from exiting in the conference semifinals to departing in the first round and calling it a success.

"People act like this team has been there 10 straight years or something," Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said Wednesday. "I mean, this is a new territory."

In terms of falling flat, yes.

The buzz has worn off the Clippers so much after three consecutive defeats that the media contingent for Del Negro's session with reporters at the team's Playa Vista headquarters numbered 10, about 40 fewer than had shown up two days earlier.

"Slackies," Del Negro said, trying to keep the mood light.

The heavy truth is that those franchise-record 56 wins and that first Pacific Division title will mean nothing unless the Clippers somehow win the next two games in their series.

Even Clipper Darrell seemed to realize this.

"Being a @LAClippers fan now the expectations are HIGHER than they ever been #CULTURECHANGE," the team's super fan tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

The only change probably will be a new coach unless Del Negro can make the Clippers whole despite Blake Griffin's sprained right ankle and Chris Paul's bruised left thumb and the general lack of heart on the rest of the roster.

If DeAndre Jordan can't toughen up, Del Negro needs to go with overachievers Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf.

If Lamar Odom continues to be passive or Caron Butler can't make a basket, give veteran Grant Hill a shot.

"We're just trying to find the five guys that are going to fight the hardest right now," Del Negro said.

What went wrong with the Lakers and Clippers this season?

Here's a better way to put it: What didn't?

To begin with, the Lakers were a bigger mishmash of parts than that monstrosity in the outfield at Marlins Park. Steve Nash and Dwight Howard never developed any chemistry on the court. Even more crushing, Howard and Kobe Bryant never cultivated any chemistry off the court.

By the time Coach Mike D'Antoni adjusted his style to fit an old and slow team, the creaky Lakers literally broke down. They played their final two playoff games with a roster better suited to the Las Vegas Summer League.

The Clippers won 17 consecutive games early in the season and were loads of fun, their locker room transformed into romper room after games with players' kids flitting about.

But like a 4-year-old who crawls away instead of sitting dutifully at circle time, the Clippers often seemed distracted over the season's final months while going from the team with the NBA's best record to one with the No. 4 seeding in the West.

Jordan never blossomed into a player worthy of the $10.5 million he is making this season. Butler and Chauncey Billups have been aging disappointments. The bench that was such a force for so long has suddenly been pushed around.

It's enough to make Paul question whether he can win a championship here or if it would be smarter to take his title quest elsewhere in free agency this summer.

"Yeah, you want to continually improve," Del Negro said when asked about the need to advance further in the playoffs than the previous season, "but it doesn't always work like that. I mean, everyone talks about that. It's easy to talk about but it's hard to do."

Especially in a season when the only thing that comes easy is a quick ending.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

twitter.com/latbbolch

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