DeAndre Jordan’s last game as a Los Angeles Clipper was in the city of Houston which happens to be where DeAndre Jordan was born, raised and was rated the number 1 prep player in the state of Texas. In Houston, that Sunday afternoon, it was a game 7. Appropriately, all of the accompanying frenzied tension a game 7 brings was present except this game 7 had more complications than usual because it never ever should have taken place.
Two days earlier the Clippers, who were up 3-1 in the series, were coasting to victory. They had a 19 point lead and were a half hour away from going to the Western Conference Finals, they were a half hour away from making their mark in the city of Los Angeles, stealing something from the Lakers and their arrogant, entitled fans. But, the Clippers blew a 19 point lead as they were paralyzed beneath a tidal wave of three point shoots. It shook them into a daze. The pressure of the moment, which is another way of saying they choked away a trip to the Western Conference Finals, began their unraveling.
Afterwards, they said the right things about having to regroup and put everything behind them but it was just talk. You can’t get over a loss like that in 48 hours. In the biggest game of their history, they collapsed.
In Houston, in game 7, the Clippers played as if they were lost in time, still brooding over the way they self-destructed in Game 6 back in L.A. The Clippers just couldn’t ever make the right play, get the key rebound, box out Dwight Howard. Yes, DeAndre Jordan had 17 rebounds but Dwight Howard had 15 rebounds. Yes, DeAndre Jordan had 16 points but Dwight Howard had 16 points. Jordan couldn’t eliminate the Dwight Howard advantage and so Houston clung to their Harden-Howard duo to lead them to a home victory and a Western Conference Finals appearance.
It was a bitter, bitter ending to a season that began with such optimism when the Clippers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in October, on a night when it seemed the Clippers were finally going to exercise all of the Clippers bullshit that has followed them around for decades. Look at what had already happened. Donald Sterling was in Malibu exile, the Lakers were both a disaster and a joke and the Clippers were at the precipice of greatness.
Seven months later, the particularly morose locker room was eerily anxious, as if they had just walked over their own graves, as if they knew there was more upheaval coming down the hill. That they were shell-shocked was a normal response but still the questions loomed about why a team up 3-1 in the playoffs and with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan was going home sulking and in despair, in a perpetual bad mood with a long, long summer awaiting them.
When DeAndre Jordan walked off the court that early evening, he didn’t look back, he gazed up, he stared at the basket, he kept walking. He and the other Clips looked fatigued, as if their body was still back in Game 6, as if their head was somewhere altogether different, in Paris, in Hawaii, in Santa Barbara, at the scene of the great crime two days earlier.
Post game, Doc Rivers said his first priority was to re-sign Jordan and he even joked about if it was tampering. But beneath his veneer, he was disappointed and sad. He had failed. He had failed when he put this team together with Spencer Hawes and a bench of wretchedly ineffective bench players. Rivers tried to lighten the mood by saying when he was a player he had his heart broken thirteen times because he had a thirteen year career and never got to the NBA Finals. It was his Vince Lombardi moment but it felt like a man who was truly heartbroken trying to find the pieces to sum up his team and so he was grabbing at straws. It felt more like an apology and a question. Why? Why did his team give a playoff series away?
Rivers could never fulfill his DeAndre Jordan promise and now there is only retrospective on DeAndre Jordan and his seven year Clippers career. At the end of it, he was more skilled than at the beginning. His rookie year, in fourteen minutes, he averaged 4 points a game. By his fifth season his minutes were up to 25, good for 9 points and 8 rebounds. Under Doc Rivers, Jordan averaged 11 points, 15 rebounds, 35 minutes.
Jordan cemented the Clippers identity as a not-Laker Showtime team. He was the athletic, lithe, limber target with the huge hands that could catch anything and rise up and dunk in a variety of athletic and oh-my-God moves that brought the house to rabid screams. Under Vinny Del Negro, it was Lob City but Doc Rivers made sure that kind of entertainment was toned down a bit but still the Clippers ran and dunked and ran and dunked and celebrated and annoyed the hell out of their opponents and they could never win in the playoffs nor capture the emotional pulse of the city of Los Angeles.
Jordan was a thief on defense, taking away shots, ready to meet defenders, aggressive at the rim, good in the pick and roll. Under Doc Rivers his game blossomed as Rivers used all of his leadership qualities to push Jordan to dig deep, access his potential and then bury his opponents on the court with his athleticism and skill around the basket.
Jordan was dynamic enough to be considered Defensive Player of the Year and his coach lobbied for the award. Everyone noticed the Clippers secret of DeAndre Jordan’s sudden development, particularly defensive coaches like Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks.
But this isn’t about what Dallas is getting, this is about what the Clippers are losing. Jordan erased mistakes. He was that target you could look for when everything broke down. He kept shooting guards and small forwards from dribbling into the lane in a straight line to the rim. He intimidated scorers, he initiated the Clippers fast break with a rebound or blocked shot. He was a miserable, awful, ugly free throw shooter, that was his major flaw. And he didn’t care for the tenacious, edgy, perfectionist leadership style of the Clippers best player, Chris Paul.
It was time for him to go and it was time for him to stay. The money was a non-factor since Jordan made the decision to not go for the 5-year deal, in essence, taking away the Clippers one leverage. It came down to team but not in the usual definition. The Clippers best players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, are infinitely better than any two Mavericks players. But increasingly, Jordan wanted more. More touches, more recognition, more responsibility, more credit. And less Chris Paul headaches.
When basketball historians look back on this Clippers era with their big three of which DeAndre Jordan controlled the middle, they will discover these sets of facts once they get over the awe of the high flying dunking repertoire of Lob City: two coaches, 169 wins, 78 losses, 15-18 in the playoffs. No Western Conference Finals appearances.