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When It Comes To Playoff Disappointment, The Clippers Are In A League Of Their Own

An entire documentary could, and perhaps should, be done on the Denver Nuggets, who played the part of “dead man walking” in each of their playoff series before doing the unthinkable and coming back from a 3-1 deficit twice.

There would be a spotlight on Gary Harris, formerly one of the league’s best role players, whose return from injury has given the club a much-needed defensive stopper on the wing. We’d get an entire segment on the importance of Paul Millsap’s series-saving third quarter in Game 5 against L.A., and the pair of clutch plays that Michael Porter Jr. made in the fourth. Star center Nikola Jokić’s one-legged, leaning fadeaways, which nearly touch the rafters before swishing through, would get the “Sport Science” treatment. And Jamal Murray’s shot-making would be edited into slow motion, the way we’re used to seeing it done with the NFL Films specials.

Over time, it might behoove us all to go back and see how it all came together — especially if the Nuggets beat the odds again in this coming round by taking down the Lakers. But for every bit of credit Denver’s survival merits, the Los Angeles Clippers — heavily favored to win even before squandering their 3-1 edge in the series1 — deserve to be interrogated until next season begins. And the first and perhaps only question would be: How could this happen again — especially with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who were supposed to erase this narrative?

This is the fifth time in seven seasons under coach Doc Rivers that the Clippers have lost a playoff matchup after holding a series lead at some point. The losses weren’t necessarily equal. The first-round defeat against the Jazz in 2017, for instance, came after just a 2-1 edge. And the 2-0 lead they lost to Portland in the 2016 first round could be forgiven as stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul went down with injuries. But even setting those aside, the hard-luck Los Angeles club has given its fans an abundance of heartburn and nightmare fuel over the last seven years.

In 2014, there was the unbelievable Game 5 defeat in Oklahoma City, in which the Clippers held a 7-point lead and a 99.3 percent win probability with 49 seconds left before all hell broke loose. There was the original 3-1 series collapse, back in 2015, when they blew a 19-point advantage over James Harden and the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the conference semis.2

And now, just when the franchise looked ready to have a baptism of sorts, to wash away the past and make its first-ever trip to the conference finals and face the Lakers, it fell short again — this time as co-favorites to win the NBA championship. The Clippers — who somehow keep managing to track down canteens in the desert, only to find them empty — now continue on their walk through the wilderness as they enter decade No. 5 of Wait Until Next Year.

Based on their pre-playoff Elo ratings — using a logistic regression to predict each team’s chances of making the conference finals — the Clips would have been expected to make just over three conference finals since 2012, when Chris Paul led them back to the playoffs after a six-year drought. (The -3.1 disparity between conference finals appearances and expected appearances is basically twice as wide as that of the next closest team: Utah has registered a -1.56 over the span.) Using those same odds, we can conclude that a team with L.A.’s Elo profile over that span would have been given a 98.7 percent chance of reaching at least one conference final in that window.

The Clippers should have made a deep run by now

Largest differentials between actual and expected* conference finals appearances for NBA teams since the 2011-12 season

Conf. Finals Appearances
Team Playoffs Avg. Pre-Playoff Elo Actual Expected Diff.
Cavaliers 4 1592.5 4 0.84 +3.16
Celtics 8 1577.1 4 1.54 +2.46
Heat 6 1598.9 4 1.57 +2.43
Warriors 7 1673.1 5 3.55 +1.45
Pacers 8 1549.7 2 0.84 +1.16
Hawks 6 1535.4 1 0.60 +0.40
Lakers 3 1587.5 1 0.60 +0.40
Thunder 8 1629.2 3 2.89 +0.11
Spurs 8 1666.3 4 4.06 -0.06
Pistons 2 1506.7 0 0.07 -0.07
Timberwolves 1 1551.4 0 0.10 -0.10
Nuggets 4 1611.0 1 1.16 -0.16
Grizzlies 6 1567.7 1 1.16 -0.16
Hornets 2 1567.2 0 0.23 -0.23
Bucks 6 1544.1 1 1.23 -0.23
Pelicans 2 1564.0 0 0.25 -0.25
Magic 3 1528.8 0 0.27 -0.27
Nets 5 1517.1 0 0.31 -0.31
Wizards 4 1531.3 0 0.39 -0.39
Knicks 2 1597.7 0 0.42 -0.42
Raptors 7 1627.1 2 2.49 -0.49
Trail Blazers 7 1592.8 1 1.51 -0.51
Mavericks 5 1561.1 0 0.63 -0.63
Rockets 8 1623.5 2 2.80 -0.80
76ers 4 1580.1 0 0.84 -0.84
Bulls 5 1575.5 0 1.00 -1.00
Jazz 5 1611.8 0 1.56 -1.56
Clippers 8 1635.4 0 3.10 -3.10

*Expected conference finals appearances are based on a logistic regression using a team’s pre-playoff Elo rating each season.


For everything the Nuggets did to earn their series victory, overcoming a rest disadvantage and playing without their third-leading scorer in Will Barton, Los Angeles did just as much to squander it. With the Clippers needing a single victory to advance, they led by as many as 15 in Game 5, 19 in Game 6 and 12 in Game 7.3

But Denver outscored Los Angeles 181-117 in the second halves of those potential close-out games, a span in which Leonard and George combined to shoot just 18-of-65 from the floor, for a dismal 27 percent. Amazingly, in Game 7 they combined for just 5 second-half points,4 while neither player managed to score at all during the fourth quarter — a brutal outcome for a team that, before landing these stars, was statistically the league’s best in clutch situations.

Even with those two struggling, the Clippers should have been able to rely on Lou Williams, who’s long been one of the NBA’s premier bucket-getters. But he was awful in the series, averaging 10 points on 11 shots while shooting just 14.8 percent (4-of-27) from three. The entire team went cold from deep in Game 7, missing all 12 of its corner 3-point tries after hitting them consistently in the first round and Games 1 through 6 of the second.

Individual no-shows from the big names doomed the club’s chances. But the common denominator in the team’s late-series failures over this seven-year run is Rivers, who’s now watched six of his teams blow a 3-1 or 3-2 lead.5 The coach, who won a title in Boston in 2008, sometimes waits too long to adjust to problems within a matchup. The most obvious example: Rivers used Montrezl Harrell too frequently despite the Sixth Man of the Year failing to make an impact on defense.

Jokić and the Nuggets feasted their way to 120.4 points per 100 possessions when Harrell was on the floor, a night-and-day contrast from the 106 points per 100 they scored when Ivica Zubac was serving as the Clippers center. And in the moments when Jokić wasn’t raining jumpers from all over the place, he showcased why he’s discussed as perhaps the greatest big-man passer the league has ever seen. He stood at the free-throw line with 4-on-3 advantages and all but played with his food by looking off defenders before firing passes to open 3-point shooters.

He was able to pick apart those power plays in the third quarter because of the ineffective traps Los Angeles tried throwing onto Murray, who had dropped 20 points in the second quarter alone. That was the reality for the Clippers these past three games: They would adjust too slowly to fix one problem, but then when they actually got around to trying something different, the Nuggets would pick that apart, too. And the players who were supposed to give the Clippers a talent advantage, Leonard and George, had no answer when push came to shove late in the game.

Without that answer, the Clippers now prepare for yet another offseason that will end up being longer than it should have been — exactly what their stars were supposed to insulate them from.

Jay Boice contributed research.

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  1. Once they had the Nuggets down 3-1, our projection model had the Clippers holding a 95.5 percent chance of getting through to the next round.

  2. This was the improbable game from Josh Smith, who couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn as a jump shooter generally but got hot and changed the course of the series.

  3. The high leads in Games 5 and 6 came during the third quarter.

  4. On 18 shot attempts.

  5. His eight losses in Game 7s are the most in NBA history, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, three more than the next closest person.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.