Clippers' Reputation as Emerging Team on the Line in Game 7 Against Warriors

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMay 3, 2014

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Whatever conversation there's been about head coaching acumen during the Warriors-Clippers first-round series has focused on Golden State's Mark Jackson. So what if Doc Rivers, the highest-paid coach in the NBA, is upset by Jackson's Warriors despite having, by most accounts, the stronger, deeper squad?

Similarly, whatever best-point-guard-in-the-league talk there's been has started—and sometimes ended—with the Clippers' Chris Paul. So what if the Warriors' Steph Curry, who some don't even consider a true point guard, ends up orchestrating Paul's ouster?       

While any number of factors could ultimately decide which way the series goes, Rivers and Paul are the primary reasons the Clippers are supposed to be a championship-caliber team. Rivers is the coach and architect of this roster. And with all due respect to Blake Griffin's growth, Paul remains the team leader.

While their union has barely begun, the patience for allowing championship aspirations to mature with the same core is growing ever shorter, largely because of a far more punitive salary cap. The Clippers are slightly over the luxury-tax threshold for this season and only a couple of million dollars below next year's projected numbers.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The limbo in which the team's ownership could be placed by Donald Sterling's proposed banishment poses an interesting dilemma: What if the team's ability to spend or make moves is suspended while attempts are made to get him to sell? Other teams, most recently the Detroit Pistons, have suffered mightily thanks to the need to maintain a status quo because of the "for sale" sign in their front yard.

The biggest challenge for any coach is not devising a masterful game plan, but getting all of his players to fully buy into it. Rivers has brought the Clippers a long way in that department, but he blamed slippage for their Game 6 loss that tied their first-round series with the Warriors at three wins apiece and forced Saturday's winner-take-all seventh game.

"We've just got to trust each other," he said. "I thought the third quarter we stopped trusting."

Imagine where that trust will be if the Clippers wind up being bounced by a sixth-seeded Warriors squad playing without center Andrew Bogut and surrounded by questions concerning Jackson's future employment.

It's possible that losing would inspire all concerned to further embrace the sacrifices Rivers has demanded of them. After all, he does have a championship ring to his name, and none of the Clippers players do besides Glen Daviswith Rivers as head coachso they have every reason to believe his way is the right way, even if it fails the first time.

No one's faith will be tested more, though, than Paul's, because no one has been asked to sublimate his game for the good of the team more than he has. He's never sniffed a championship, but he's made it out of the first round doing it his way.

"Chris is playing terrific defensively, and that's what we need him to do in this series," Rivers said. "It probably does take a little bit of his offense away, but I'm good with that."

Paul seems to be good with it, too.

For the better part of his career, he has had the ball in his hands and the freedom to do whatever he wants with it. That has amounted to statistics that have convinced some to tout him as the best point guard in the game, ignoring the fact those stellar numbers haven't manufactured deep playoff runs or made his teammates appreciably better than they've been with arguably lesser point guards.

To Paul's great credit, he not only has gone along with the offense running through Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick and others, but he has shaped himself into a dangerous catch-and-shoot three-point threat. He has nearly doubled the number of threes he attempted (from 3.4 during the regular season to a career playoff high of 5.7 against the Warriors this round) while still shooting a robust 47.1 percent.

Shortly after taking over as both head coach and de facto general manager, sources say Rivers invited his players to let him know if they had any issues with the roles he expected them to play. He wanted to know, he said, so that he could find them a new place to play. Why would he take such a stand? "Because I can," he supposedly said.

Apparently, no one took him up on the invitation, and one early exit isn't likely to change that. But the clock is always ticking in the NBA. The start of something good for the Clippers already has an air of uncertainty thanks to the proposed ouster of its owner.

Will new ownership give Rivers the same free hand he supposedly has now? Will it be willing to re-up DeAndre Jordan for what is sure to be a near-max deal after next season?

The Clippers were considered a team built to contend for years. Now Rivers isn't sure he wants to stay. Jordan is a season away from free agency. Who knows how long the cloud of Sterling will hover over them.

Put it all together, and the landscape should they not get past the Warriors suddenly looks a lot darker than anyone imagined when the playoffs began.


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.