Nine months before the Denver Nuggets ended the Los Angeles Clippers' season, they were sending their visitors from Los Angeles to their sixth loss in 13 games on a crisp January night. By the end, Doc Rivers' patience was as thin as the Rocky Mountain air.
After voicing his frustration over two decisions by the officials, the Clippers' coach was whistled for two technical fouls, ejected and led off Pepsi Center's court with just over a minute remaining.
The loss capped a stretch featuring some of the championship contender's most head-scratching play of its highly anticipated season, including a 26-point loss on Jan. 4 that led backup center Montrezl Harrell to deduce that "we're not a great team." They were not good enough to win in Denver, either, Rivers acknowledged, saying the team had waited too long to begin playing. Still, he insisted the team was on the same page.
"None of us in there are panicking or anything like that," Rivers said. "It's a long season. And we'll be ready."
The season would last four months longer than ever because of the interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet all that time couldn't help the Clippers be ready, when it mattered most, to clean up the streaky play that was a hallmark not only during early January but much of the season.
Pushed by the Nuggets again in a Western Conference semifinal, the Clippers saw their commanding 3-1 series lead disappear in a run of missed shots, missed stops and missed opportunities that revealed that their inconsistency was still present months later. They flexed their championship potential while building leads of 16, 19 and 12 points against the Nuggets in the series' final three games. They also looked helpless when Denver began its rallies.
"They ran into a real team that played together, not in spite of each other," said one league executive.
The earlier-than-predicted exit keeps the franchise from realizing its stated goal of claiming a championship and leaves them watching as the rival Los Angeles Lakers continue to pursue their own.
Chris Webber, the TNT analyst and former All-Star, was among the many who picked the Clippers to win the West based on the tantalizing promise of adding two-time Finals most valuable player Kawhi Leonard and former most valuable player candidate Paul George to a lineup of established, resilient, versatile players who excelled in their roles.
"You thought that chemistry would just be in their effort and defense every night," Webber said.