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Clippers must shed emotional baggage to take Game 7

POSTED: May 16, 2015 5:40 PM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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— It was like watching a helium balloon with a slow leak and nothing anyone could do was going to stop it from eventually hitting the ground.

First Austin Rivers misses a layup and Jamal Crawford bounces a five-foot floater off the back rim and practically nobody in the dancing, jumping, jubilant crowd seems to notice.

Then Blake Griffin checks back into the game and clanks badly on a wide-open jump shot and Crawford misses another and J.J. Redick heaves a 3-pointer off line and DeAndre Jordan blows up a slam dunk and suddenly there are five panicky cats hacking on a hairball that is stamped Spalding.

When the Clippers finally get back onto the court after taking a full day off to collect their wits and any remnants of the 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals that has leaked out their ears, they'll be battling more than just the Rockets in an improbable Game 7. They'll be battling their own star-crossed history. The one where 45 years of flailing, franchise flameouts named Benoit Benjamin and Michael Olowokandi cross paths with today's still unproven banner carriers.

Remember, All-Stars Griffin and Chris Paul have still never been past the second round of the NBA playoffs and may have blown their best chance to do it with that 49-18 splat over the final 15 minutes on Thursday night.

While the Rockets are trying to become just the ninth team ever and the first since 2006 to come back and win a best-of-seven series after digging such a hole, it is now the Clippers who'll be trying to buck long odds. Road teams have won just 24 of 119 previous Game 7s in league history.

But before they get to the numbers, the Clippers will have to deal with the emotional baggage that drags behind what can only be called an epic collapse.

"Yeah, we did," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. "I thought we were trying to run the clock out and we stopped playing ... and once (the lead) got to eight, you could feel it.

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"What could have went wrong went wrong. We did get some great shots and ... we missed wide-open 3s, layups, dunks and (with) each miss, I thought the pressure mounted."

It's why close-out games in the playoffs are the hardest, because you're dealing with more than just the usual Xs and Os and ebbs and flows of a game. There is a scent of desperation and finality in the air that has to be inhaled and embraced before it can rise up and overwhelm you.

The Clippers thought they had cleared that bar when they beat the defending champion Spurs in a spectacularly played Game 7 to advance out of the first round. But it is a familiar bugaboo that has followed them around this season.

"Once we get up, we talk about it all year," Griffin said. "Putting the pedal down and really keep going. Not just playing to lose, just play to win and do the things that got us there."

With 15 minutes to go, the Clippers were dancing on their way to the conference finals for the first time in the long, hard, patience-and-loyalty-testing history of the formerly forlorn franchise and even talked about in some quarters as the most complete, utterly confident team left in the playoffs that could be the favorite to win the championship in June. Now they're stuck with just another mayday call on their innards.

Rivers will remind his team that they were good enough to build that 3-1 advantage in the series and it's only a matter of getting back to moving the ball on offense, playing in transition, and attacking the basket that built the 19-point lead in Game 6 in the first place.

But before that the Clippers will have to bury the memories and the emotions that run from sad to angry to just plain flummoxed about what hit them.

"I think there's probably a plethora of emotions when something like this happens," Rivers said. "You know, I felt bad for them, honestly. Because they want it so bad and sometimes you want stuff so bad that you can't get it because you're in your own way, and I thought we clearly got in our own way."

The challenge at this point is to get out of their own heads and get right back into the moment.

"We don't have a choice but to forget about this game and move on," said Paul. "We have another Game 7 on our hands. Unfortunately, we're very familiar with Game 7s. We just have to finish off the series."

Before it finishes them off first.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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