POSTSEASON PAST: A LOOK BACK AT THE PREVIOUS FOUR CLIPPERS PLAYOFF TEAMS, PART 1 OF 4



Eric Patten, Clippers.com | @ericpatten


Fifty-seven seconds stood in front of the 1993 edition of the Los Angeles Clippers and a first round upset of the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Playoffs.

They had overcome a 16-point fourth quarter deficit in front of a raucous crowd at the Summit in Houston in the decisive Game 5. All-Star forward Danny Manning made a difficult baseline runner over Otis Thorpe. Ron Harper followed with a coast-to-coast layup. The basket and subsequent foul led to a Rockets timeout. And the Clippers had come all the way back to take the lead, 80-79.

Legendary broadcaster Marv Albert made the call on the and-one play, "Harper all the way, yes! And it counts. Ron Harper will go to the line."

It was close to a defining moment for the Clippers in their second playoff series since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. But things quickly unraveled. Vernon Maxwell drilled a 3-pointer with less than a minute to go. Manning missed a three on the other end. And two Rockets free throws effectively iced it.


Larry Brown (NBAE/Getty)

After the loss, head coach Larry Brown told the Los Angeles Times, "I just wish we could have gotten it done. It would have been great for our franchise."

Brown believed the way the team played down the stretch and in the playoffs was a meaningful sign.

It was the second consecutive year that the seventh seeded Clippers pushed a heavily favored opponent to the brink. They had lost to Utah in five games the year before and May 8, 1993 was supposed to be a seminal moment, an opportunity to overcome a somewhat rocky past. But both series ended much the same way; with the team heading back to Los Angeles, unable to advance.

Three years later, the Clippers made the postseason again, and again faced long odds before they were swept in three games by the eventual Western Conference champion Jazz.

Another decade would pass before the Clippers reached the "promised land" again. The 2006 group won a first-round series, sending the Denver Nuggets home in five games. The run with Elton Brand, Sam Cassell, and Company along with the franchise’s previous three trips to the playoffs during the 1990's, while falling short of ultimate success, marked the two most triumphant periods in franchise history.

But all of those previous so-called best wins could be challenged now. As the march toward Game 1 of the 2012 Playoffs continues through the final days of the regular season, the 2011-12 Clippers are in many ways positioned to become franchise changers. They are assured the highest seed in Clipper history (the ’05-06 team was a six seed) and the best winning percentage. And with an intriguing mix of battle-tested veterans and fresh faces, the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era in Clippers history could jump off to a memorable start.

As a precursor to the Clippers’ first -round date with the Memphis Grizzlies, Clippers.com takes a peek into the past, beginning with the 1991-92 Manning-led team that took on the Jazz.

CLIPPERS PLAYOFF CAPSULE 1991-92: COACHING CHANGES, CIVIL UNREST AND POSTSEASON WINS

The first-ever Los Angeles Clippers playoff team may also have been the franchise's most talented. However, when the season tipped off it was a much different story.

They opened with five wins in seven games, but after a 4-10 stretch in January dropped them to three games under .500, the team fired Coach Mike Schuler. Following two games with interim head coach Mack Calvin, the team hired Brown, who had been with the Spurs for nearly four years, including the first 38 games of 1991-92.

"The impact of the coaching change was so dramatic," Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler recalled. "[The team was] 22-25 when Larry Brown took over and then 23-12 the rest of the way. It was a solid roster from the start that season, but a solid team only after the coaching change. I think that group in those final 35 games was the best Clipper team we have seen in L.A."


Danny Manning (NBAE/Getty)

With Brown at the helm, the reinvigorated Clippers rolled off five-straight wins against Western Conference teams, including a thrilling 107-106 victory over the Blazers in Portland, which brought them to 25-25.

Led by Manning, the Clippers thrived in Brown's system. Of course, it helped that Manning had won with the legendary coach before: Manning was an All-American on Brown's 1988 NCAA title team at Kansas.

According to Sports Illustrated's Hank Hersch, it was 'the Danny factor' that helped draw Brown to Los Angeles in the first place."

Lawler called Brown professor-like in his approach to the game and it paid off with a group that was eager to learn.

"When Brown arrived, [Loy] Vaught told him he was nervous about running a particular post-up play because he felt uncomfortable on the block," Hersch wrote on March 9, 1992. "Brown tutored him on his moves, then called the play against Portland. After Vaught faced up and canned the shot, he raced over at the next whistle glowing with pride."

When the playoffs arrived the entire team had a taken on that same aura of confidence and Lawler said it was the most "focused" Clippers team he had ever seen.

The 55-win Jazz hosted the first two games of the best of five series. It was the middle of a remarkable stretch in which Utah made the playoffs 20 years in a row and the Delta Center had a budding reputation as a madhouse.


Ken Norman (NBAE/Getty)

Considering the way the Clippers closed the season, it was certainly not likely to be a typical first-round series. The Riverside Press-Enterprise predicted the Clippers had the "assets to break down the Jazz."

Clippers forward Charles Smith said, "[In the playoffs] everything is so magnified. The games are intense and you must minimize your errors and mistakes."

Smith's quote was apropos for a team that had very limited postseason experience, and it showed in Game 1. The Jazz jumped out to a six-point lead in the first quarter and wound up cruising to a 115-97 win, shooting 56.4 percent from the field.

It wasn't the defense or effort that failed the Clippers in Game 2. It was their performance from the charity stripe. Despite grabbing 20 offensive rebounds and committing just 12 turnovers, L.A. missed 14 of its 25 free throws, effectively giving away points. And when Utah took over in the third quarter of Game 2, eventually winning 103-92, the Clippers postseason seemed in jeopardy just three days after it had begun.

The series shifted back to Los Angeles where the Clippers were 29-12, including a memorable 102-101 overtime victory over the Jazz in December.

Clippers forward Ken Norman stressed the importance of coming home, "Not only for our team, but because Utah was not a good road team."

He was right.


Ralph Remembers -
His Most Memorable Games



MAY 3, 1992 - The Clippers had earned a first round playoff meeting with a very good Utah Jazz team that was in the heart of the John Stockton/Karl Malone era. The Jazz held a 2-1 series lead when the L.A. Riots broke out and brought the City of Angels to its knees. We waited anxiously for several smoke-filled days and curfewed nights. The Jazz were sequestered in their Marina Del Rey hotel. The Clipper players were isolated at home.

The game was finally re-scheduled in the safer confines of the Anaheim Convention Center on Sunday afternoon. At last, there was something to look forward to in the Southland. The locals could turn their attention from watching the looting and burning on television to watching the upstart Clippers challenge the battle tested Jazz.

The Clippers were the only game in town. The Lakers had moved their Game 4 meeting with Portland to Las Vegas. Clippers Senior Vice President of Marketing & Sales Carl Lahr cleverly manage to transport the team's L.A. Sports Arena home court to Anaheim where it was hastily pieced together in time for the game. The players were pleasantly surprised when they saw their familiar home hardwood upon entering the building in Orange County.

Danny Manning and Ron Harper were unbelievable. The Clippers rally flags were flying in the stands. Doc Rivers played an inspired game and despite 44 points from Hall of Famer to be Karl Malone, the Clippers scored a solid 115-107 win to force a deciding Game 5 the next night in Salt Lake City.

The Jazz struggled in the first half of Game 3, scoring 36 points, and all five Clippers starters finished in double figures, en route to a 98-88 win.

That's when any sense of normality in the series exploded like a powder keg.

At approximately 3:45 p.m. on April 29, tensions in the city of Los Angeles boiled over after the Rodney King verdicts sparked the most damaging and costly rioting in American history. The turmoil forced the postponement of Game 4, which would be played three days later at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Seemingly the most significant question related to basketball was whether or not the delay would halt the Clippers momentum. As it turned out, the some 7,500 fans that showed up in Orange County were treated to a wonderful game.

The teams traded leads throughout the afternoon, Manning erupted for 33 points and 11 rebounds, and Doc Rivers dropped in five points in a 30-second span in the final minute to tie the series and send it back to Utah.

"It was as if there was no three-day delay because of civil unrest in Los Angeles," Scott Howard-Cooper wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "As if this were the Sports Arena, not an impromptu home in another county and another area code. As if this were the way the Clippers planned it all along, winning the two games in Southern California - anywhere in Southern California, it turned out, to even the series, 2-2."

The best word to describe what happened next: Bittersweet.

Playing what today would be a rare playoff back-to-back, the Clippers led for three and a half quarters during Game 5 in Salt Lake City. They were poised and loose, grabbing a 52-40 halftime lead. They held Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton, who was also saddled with foul trouble, to nine assists and five turnovers.

But a dreadful fourth quarter sealed their fate. Manning, whose 24 points was a Clipper high, fouled out with less than four minutes to go and the team went 2-for-21 in the quarter, good for only 12 points. The Jazz won 98-89; a margin that did no justice to how close the Clippers came to packing for a second round trip to Seattle.

After the game Smith said, "We really thought we had this ball club, the majority of the time. We just couldn't lock it up."

It wouldn't be the last time the Clippers would just miss moving on.

Make sure to check back with Clippers.com for a look at the 1992-93 Clippers Playoff Team.

1991-92 Western Conference First Round (April 24 - May 4)

No. 7 Clippers vs. No. 2 Utah


Gary Grant (NBAE/Getty)

Starters:

Danny Manning, SF: At 25, Manning had the best playoff series of his career, averaging 22.6 points per game with a 56.8 shooting percentage. In the Clippers' Game 4 win, he matched Hall of Famer Karl Malone's 44 points and 11 rebounds with 33 points and 10 boards of his own.

Ken Norman, PF: The guy most responsible for battling Karl Malone in the post, Norman did yeoman's work, including grabbing 14 rebounds in the Game 2 loss.

Charles Smith, C: The series was Smith's first postseason experience. After battling through a knee injury in the regular season that limited him to 49 games, Smith averaged nearly 30 minutes in the five games against Utah.

Ron Harper, SG: After Larry Brown took over; Harper became his defensive stopper, but only totaled five steals and four blocks in the series. Offensively, Harper played well and in Game 4 his 26 points, six rebounds and four assists helped the Clippers send the series back to Salt Lake.

Gary Grant, PG: "The General" started games 1 and 5, giving way to Doc Rivers in the middle three games of the series.


Loy Vaught (NBAE/Getty)

Key Reserves:

Doc Rivers (started Games 2, 3, 4): Despite shooting poorly from the field (3-of-10), Rivers came up big down the stretch of Game 4. He made two free throws with 53 seconds left and finished off a twisting and-one layup to clinch it.

James Edwards: In his only year with the Clippers, the 36-year-old center was by far the most experienced playoff performer on the team. He was a member of two Pistons title teams in the late 1980's. He averaged 6.4 points in 17.4 minutes.

Loy Vaught: Not yet a major role player off the bench, the second-year forward was used to spell Norman defensively against Malone.

Olden Polynice: With Smith hurt in the regular season, O.P. started 65 games. However, against Utah, he managed less than 13 minutes per game as another big body to battle Mark Eaton and the Jazz frontline.


MORE: Looking back at the 1992-93 playoff team