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Hernández: Clippers go from cursed to franchise first by reaching conference finals

·5 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 18, 2021: LA Clippers guard Patrick Beverley (21) reacts as the Clippers.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley celebrates during a 131-119 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Staples Center on Friday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Their former owner treated them as if they were one of his neglected rental properties. They were the franchise of Danny Manning and Danny Ferry, of the Kandi Man and unfathomable cave-ins. They were cursed. They were losers.

On Friday night, in the 51st season of their existence, the ugly frogs of the NBA finally were kissed by the goddesses of victory.

The Los Angeles Clippers are in the Western Conference finals.

With a 131-119 win over the Utah Jazz, the Clippers did more than advance to a stage of the postseason they had never reached.

They redefined their organization.

The Clippers did to the Jazz what other teams did to the Clippers wretched season after wretched season.

A second-round series that started with two consecutive victories by the top-seeded Jazz culminated with a sixth game at Staples Center in which the Clippers wiped out a 25-point, third-quarter deficit.

And they did it with their best player, Kawhi Leonard, sidelined for a second consecutive game with a knee injury. A showdown with the Phoenix Suns in the conference finals now awaits.

Whatever that season-ending calamity against the Denver Nuggets was last year, this was the opposite.

Paul George, who infamously hit the side of the backboard in the Clippers’ Game 7 nightmare last season, was serenaded with chants of “M-V-P!” as he collected 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

Clippers players hug guard Terance Mann during a timeout in a 131-119 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday.
Clippers players hug guard Terance Mann during a timeout in a 131-119 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Reggie Jackson, who contributed 27 points, heard his name chanted as if he were his baseball-playing namesake.

And the Mann of the Moment, 39-point scorer Terance Mann, made the entire arena shake and shake and shake.

These Clippers won’t be remembered like previous incarnations of the team, which routinely dredged up fear. This team inspired hope. Didn’t matter if they were down by 22 at halftime or by as much as 75-50 early in the third quarter.

Staples Center was at capacity, the timely byproduct of the lifting of statewide COVID-19 restrictions.

When a basket by Mann with 5 minutes 23 seconds remaining in the third period reduced closed the gap to 90-73, the 17,105 fans in the house sensed something special was about to take place. Mann went on to score 20 points in the quarter.

“Let’s Go Clip-pers! Let’s Go Clip-pers!”

With 2:16 remaining in the period, George went to the free-throw line, eliciting a chant from the crowd in this building previously reserved for the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

“M-V-P! M-V-P!”

By the time Jackson drained a corner three-pointer with 1:42 left in the quarter, there was complete bedlam in the stands.

There were no words, just a deafening roar.

Victory was inevitable, just as painful defeats of the past were.

Clippers fans celebrate the team's 131-119 comeback victory over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on Friday.
Clippers fans celebrate the team's 131-119 comeback victory over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on Friday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A three-pointer by Nicolas Batum in the opening minute of the fourth quarter tied the game, 94-94.

Less than a minute later, Jackson drove to the basket and moved the Clippers in front, 96-95.

Another three-pointer by Batum, this one with less than nine minutes to play, extended the Clippers’ lead to 107-100. The visitors called a timeout.

By this time, the entire arena was on its feet. Wearing the promotional blue shirts they found on their seats, fans exchanged high-fives with their neighbors. Team consultant Jerry West, who calmly watched the game from a folding chair in a corner of the floor level, stood up. A nearby fan extended a fist in his direction. West balled up his hand and touched knuckles with him.

Clippers fans cheer on the team during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals.
Clippers fans cheer on the team during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz on Friday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

History was about to be made.

A team that was subjected to a steady and continuous stream of embarrassments under Donald Sterling was about to make the breakthrough envisioned by the considerably more ambitious Steve Ballmer.

Generations of Angelenos laughed at the Clippers’ repeated failures. The team’s small but loyal band of followers suffered in anonymity.

All this was about to change.

What the Clippers did marked an unprecedented step for the franchise. How they did it marked a transformation in their culture.

The untimely knee injury suffered by Leonard was entirely in line with the team’s cursed tradition. How the Clippers responded wasn’t.

They became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 2-0 deficit twice in one postseason. They were resilient. They were unbreakable.

Which is why George, Jackson and Mann were able to do what Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan never could.

How long they can extend their journey, whether they can reach the NBA Finals or even win it all, depends on the condition of Leonard’s knee. But regardless of how this season ends, they won’t be a punchline anymore.

Clippers-Suns finals schedule
Clippers-Suns finals schedule (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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