Miguel de la Fuente-Lau post mortems the Clippers shocking series loss to the Rockets. And he needs a hug.
“Deserve” is such a funny word, when we use it in the context of sports.
By definition, it means to do or show something worthy of reward. But in sports, when the ultimate reward–and often times, the only measure of success–is winning, then it appears as though fans are left rooting for, and grieving with, all the seemingly deserving “losers” that couldn’t make it out on top.
At the time of this writing, I find myself fully entrenched in the camp of agonizing fans, slumped in despair over what has once again become a premature ending to a promising season.
The Los Angeles Clippers lost three games in a row to the Houston Rockets in devastating fashion, to cap what figures to be one of the most heart-wrenching series losses in their otherwise, irrelevant NBA history.
In Game 5, in their first potential series-clinching game after going up 3–1 against the Rockets, they lost by 21 points in Houston. That’s after having won the previous 2 games in Los Angeles by 25 and 33 points, respectively.
In Game 6, in their second potential series-clinching game after remaining up 3–2 against the Rockets, they lost by 12 points after being outscored 40–15 in the final period. They were up 92–79, going into the 4th Quarter. It is probably their most significant, and most improbable, collapse in the Playoffs, ever.
In Game 7, in their final potential series-winning game after being tied 3–3 against the Rockets, they lost by 13 points, despite a furious rally in the final minutes of a game in which they never led from start to finish.
The Clipper season is over, and effectively, as a fan of the team, so is mine. There are no “moral victories” anymore for a team that was assembled to win immediately since the day it stole Chris Paul from the Lakers and teamed him up with a rising star in Blake Griffin and a raw defensive talent in DeAndre Jordan.
Since 2011, Los Angeles has seen a turning of the tides in the franchise trajectories of the Lakers and the Clippers, with the latter team essentially leapfrogging the former, at least in regards to regular season success.
Fans have witnessed Blake Griffin ascend into elite star status with the potential, as we have seen in this year’s playoffs, to routinely turn in triple-double performances and will his team to victory.
DeAndre Jordan might very well be Doc Rivers’ favorite player, and defensively, certainly his most irreplaceable piece, proving his worth despite being a liability still at the free throw line.
And then, of course, there’s Chris Paul.
As I struggle to make some sense of how the Clippers are not advancing to the Western Conference Finals, my thoughts immediately go to him.
Chris Paul is the one guy who, I believe, actually deserves to win.
This postseason, he averaged 21.7 points, 8.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game The man shot over 50% from the field overall, over 40% from three-point territory, and over 90% from the free throw line.
The truth is, he’s probably played even better before. But that’s part of the narrative that makes his early exit particularly heartbreaking. Despite all his efforts, he simply hasn’t advanced far enough in the Playoffs to be regarded as a “winner”.
His reputation as the league’s best point guard (“Point God” to some) and sustained statistical excellence for his entire career (18.7 ppg, 9.9 ast, 2.5 stl) remains for many, a footnote to the larger storyline that depicts Chris Paul as his generation’s greatest loser.
His team did his legacy no favors, squandering a commanding series lead over Houston and ultimately lost in devastating fashion, fading whatever memories we had of Chris Paul floating an impossible, one-legged jumper over the outstretched arms of Tim Duncan in the first round (OK, I haven’t forgotten).
You can argue that the Clippers deserved to have lost the series, considering how they lost. Up 3–1, three chances to advance, lost thrice.
You can better argue that the Rockets deserved to win, considering how they won. Down 3–1, three must-win games, all won.
Being that basketball is a team sport, the blame really ought to be equally shared. From the ownership that attempts to assemble a winning team, to the coach that motivates and manages all the moving parts, to the players, who have to execute the X’s and O’s on a nightly basis.
And yet, stunning victories and defeats are much easier for the average fan to grapple with, when dealing with singular figures to whom we can collectively point our proverbial fingers. We cast heroes and villains in sports frivolously, and in basketball, I can think of no greater example of a player who has been, undeservedly miscast as both hero and villain, than Chris Paul.
Chris Paul is also, at once, both winner, and loser. San Antonio first, Houston next. Unfortunately for him, it’s the most recent role that sticks.
It’s the role that continues to stick, with him, and he’s tired of it. In the postgame interview, Paul could hardly bring himself to see the silver lining, if there is one.
He could only muster up quoting a fictional character from a dumb movie to sum up his feelings: “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
That belongs to Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby, from Talladega Nights.
Chris Paul could do better. Except he didn’t:
“…I’m sorry, but I don’t really see growth in a loss.”
Understandably, the man’s spirit is broken. And the rest of us who have ridden with him and the Clippers on this unpredictable ride the last four seasons will afford him copious amounts of grace, even if we disagreed with the sentiment. To us, he deserves that much.
Perhaps some of the media will practice a level of cognitive dissonance and separate Paul’s deservingness for a win, with his team’s deservingness for loss. In all likelihood, however, for Paul, the media, and the rest of us watching this familiar Clipper story, it’s all one in the same.
To him, he’s to blame anyway. To the media, that makes for an easy scapegoat. To the fans, we think we deserve better.
Except, we don’t.
We’re pinning our hopes and dreams on the ultimate fantasy of relishing a team’s success without any actual effort of our own. All we do is choose to keep watching, which we aren’t paid to do. Those guys have to keep playing, because they’re paid to do it. They must deserve something…for that. For having to get up and do it, all over again, next season.
So as a fan, I realize that I deserve nothing. It is my absolute privilege to be entertained. Outside of that, I can’t decide who deserves what in the fallout. The Rockets earned their place in the Western Conference Finals. But do they deserve to win it all? The Clippers played themselves out of that berth. Did they deserve to lose? Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan played elite-level basketball, or at least gave elite-level effort, for every minute that they played. And still, they were on the losing end.
I know nothing about what ought to happen next, even though this path is a well-trod one. I only know that Chris Paul deserves to win. Or even the feeling of winning something, if not winning itself.
Or at the very least, he deserves a long hug, for again, losing. And right now, honestly, so could we.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/File
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