The billboards came out last summer.
Their message was that the Clippers were the dirty-fingernailed workingmen of L.A., while the Lakers lit their cigars with $500 bills.
Street Lights Over Spotlights. Grit Over Glam.
The Clippers were pure ballers and the Lakers were posers. No decoder ring was required.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic, from the Serbian bureau of truth-in-advertising, is one game away from ending that marketing campaign.
But it’s been a fallacy throughout.
The Lakers took apart Houston in five professional games, and the Clippers have watched a 3-1 lead over Jokic and Denver disappear, with Game 7 on Tuesday night. All season the Lakers have been the L.A. team with the defense, the coherence, the resilience and the harmony. Because of the presumptuous themes, this is a far more existential series for the Clippers than it should be. When a reputation dies, it is not charitably replaced.
The Clippers have lost leads of 19 and 16 points in the past two games, and if Game 6 had lasted 10 more minutes, Denver might have won by 40.
The same kind of catatonia befell the Clippers in Game 5 of the West semifinals five years ago, when Houston, with James Harden benched, won the fourth quarter 40-15 and staged an 18-0 run in Staples Center.
The year before, the Clippers had a seven-point lead with :50 to go at Oklahoma City and managed to lose, then lost the series at home in Game 6.
They are 0-7 in conference semifinal series, going back to their days as Buffalo Braves. How this can become the furniture of a franchise, transcending ownerships and arenas and coaches and even practice facilities, is just spooky. The Cubs went through the same thing, but at least they had old newspaper clippings of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. And at least they got to a World Series a time or two. The Clippers resemble some haunted college team that can’t make a Final Four.
Jokic, with a half-smile and a game that borrows from the past and the future, has taken over the series. He is a 7-footer who initiates offense, throws unerring 85-foot outlets, and maneuvers defenders with his eyes like a lethal, look-off quarterback. Then, as the shot clock dwindles, he leans back and throws in leisurely 3-pointers that threaten to scrape the ceiling.
Jokic was the 41st player taken in the 2014 draft and the fourth Balkan. The Nuggets were far more excited about Jusuf Nurkic, now with Portland. Jokic did not come over until the next season. The Clippers picked C.J. Wilcox 28th, but it wasn’t just them. Other NBA drafters preferred such names as Josh Huestis, Cleanthony Early and Jarnell Stokes.
Jokic seems immune to pressure, not that the Clippers have applied it. Coach Doc Rivers said they wouldn’t seek to get him in foul trouble.
“But we’ll try to involve him,” Rivers said. “He’s playing extended minutes, too. We have to make him work as hard as we can.”
Rivers was mostly concerned with the wandering minds of his own squad. He noted Sunday that they lost their concentration when Denver’s Jamal Murray left the game after Paul George fell on him. Really? You’d expect streetfighters to seize the weakness. Instead the Clippers scored 35 points in the second half and shot 26.3 percent.
But this is not the bottomless team the billboards promised us. George and Kawhi Leonard scored 27 of those 35 points Sunday. The starkest decline comes from Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the back-to-back Sixth Men of the Year.
In last year’s gallant six-game loss to Golden State, Williams and Harrell sprang their deadly pick-and-roll to the tune of 40 points a game. Against the Nuggets they are averaging 20.8.
“Players need to see the ball go in the hole,” Rivers said. “Lou had chances for three layups yesterday and none of them went in. If they do, maybe it’s a ‘Lou’ game.”
He also wasn’t happy with Patrick Beverley’s insistence on fouling when Beverley already deals with a playing-time restriction.
Mainly, Rivers needs to find ears that will accept his messages.
“You drill it into your guys — this is what we do well,” Rivers said. “What we’ve done to get those leads has worked continuously. Then we stop doing it, and things go the other way.
“But if you get through this, it will definitely serve you well.”
The Lakers keep hanging over the Clippers’ highway. They have secured their appointment. The Clippers are late for theirs. Ruining a Hallway Series would be far more damaging than losing one.
If either happens, next year’s billboards are ready to go.
Parades, Not Charades. Gold, Not Fold. Woke, Not Choke.