Paul Pierce returned to his hometown and reunited with his former head coach, but a championship just wasn’t meant to be for the Los Angeles Clippers.
The season didn’t go the way Paul and Doc Rivers had hoped. The two had dreamt of capturing another title together — adding to an incredible run in 2008, when they led the Boston Celtics to glory.
This season, their chase to the Finals was cut short. The injury bug bit the Clippers throughout the season and early the playoffs, as both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went down with injuries, and the Portland Trail Blazers took the first-round series in six games.
Although their postseason run was derailed, Paul’s influence to get them to the playoffs cannot be denied. Paul, who signed with L.A. over the summer, was brought to the City of Angels for his confidence, leadership and abundance of experience.
“I’m a veteran,” said the future Hall-of-Famer. “I could be another voice for the locker room, and I could just pretty much fill any role they need me to play, whether it’s in the locker room, on the court, as three-man, four-man, team leader…I feel I can just be that, kind of like, a glue guy.”
Paul cemented the Clips together with his leadership, but the 18-year veteran was kept quiet with his numbers, logging career-lows in minutes (18.1), points (6.1), assists (1.0) and rebounds (5.7) per game. Still, he was the backbone to a spectacular season.
L.A. started the season 4-0, along with the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, after picking up wins over the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. The defending champion Warriors handed the Clips their first loss of the season, which sparked a minor slump.
The loss marked the first of eight for November. The Clippers ended the month with three straight W’s, which build momentum for December, a month they went 11-5.
Amid the magic, Paul reached another milestone in his storied career. On Dec. 16, Paul became just the 16th player in NBA history to hit the 26,000-point mark during the Clippers’ 103-90 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Paul’s just special,” Rivers said. “He frustrated me when I coached against him because I didn’t see the athleticism. It used to drive me crazy. You think, this slow guy, how is he scoring? Then, when you coach him, you realize he’s not slow. He’s got a great first step, and he’s a better athlete than you think, and he’s strong as heck. But I think Paul has scored most of his points from fundamentals. Every kid should watch his footwork. He’s still beating guys off the dribble, and it’s amazing.”
No. 34 flaunted his fundamentals when he scored a season-high 20 points in L.A.’s 109-104 victory over the Utah Jazz on Dec. 26. That victory represented something of a turning point in the season for Paul and for his team. It marked Los Angeles’ first game without Griffin, who missed 45 games after tearing his left quadriceps tendon in a Christmas Day matchup with the Lakers.
That holiday victory developed into a 10-game winning streak, in which Paul produced four double-digit scoring nights.
The Clips continued to roll, dropping just three games in January and four in February. The Truth logged his highest monthly scoring average (7.2) of the year in February, as he started to settle into his role.
March wasn’t so smooth. The Clippers finished with an 8-8 mark, making it the first time they hadn’t finished a month above .500 since November.
After a setback versus Golden State on March 23, Paul inspired L.A. by helping the squad channel a healthy mindset.
“It’s that time of the year, you’ve got to be mentally tough,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to finish out the season on a strong note. Hopefully we don’t look past these 12 games and whatnot, try to secure the best seed we can and get a good rhythm going into the playoffs.”
The Clips listened. L.A. danced its way into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. Following Paul’s postgame comments, the Clippers won 10 of their next 12. They secured their fifth straight playoff berth on March 27 with a 105-90 win over the Denver Nuggets.
Griffin was set to return four games later.
“I think it’s good for the morale of the group,” No. 34 said of Griffin’s return. “We always say we can get through the regular season and win a lot of games, but our goal is to win a championship and we know we can’t do that without Blake. So it’s going to be good to get him back for the last few games of the season so he can get his legs under him and hopefully we can get a hot streak going into the playoffs.”
Against the Washington Wizards on April 3, Griffin returned to the starting lineup. With Blake back, the Clips enjoyed a six-game winning streak right before the playoffs, highlighted by an 18-point effort by The Truth in a big OT win over a playoff-hopeful Jazz team.
When the postseason began, L.A. jumped out to a 2-0 lead over Portland, but the Blazers took the next two at home, evening the series at two. Those defeats in themselves weren’t crippling for the Clips, but the los they sustained within the Game 4 loss was. L.A.’s two leading scorers CP3 (broken right hand) and Griffin (strained left quad), suffered injuries that sidelined them the rest of the series.
Even with the odds against them, the Clippers fought until the final horn, but they couldn’t usurp the young and determined Blazers without their two top offensive options.
“You saw it in everybody’s eyes – this group didn’t have no quit in them no matter what the circumstances were,” Paul said. “It didn’t take away from the guys’ effort. … I’m proud of everybody. It was great being able to play with a good group of guys like this.”