© (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
Clippers guard Lou Williams argues a call by referee Josh Tiven during a 111-98 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 on Sunday. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Hernández: Choking Clippers are missing their chance to establish a new identity


There’s no delicate way to phrase this: The Clippers are choking.

And they aren’t just folding against the Denver Nuggets, they are doing so in a form so cartoonish that anyone with a passing familiarity of the NBA has to consider whether the Clippers are actually cursed.

Their most recent meltdown was even more breathtaking than their last, as they dropped a 111-98 decision to the Nuggets on Sunday in a game in which they led by 19 points in the third quarter.

The come-from-ahead defeat followed a similar loss two days earlier in which the Clippers wasted a 16-point advantage.

Like that, a series that looked over four days earlier was extended to Game 7, which will be played Tuesday night. In addition to the franchise’s first-ever appearance in the conference finals, a long-awaited showdown with the Lakers will be at stake.

So much for their three-games-to-one edge.

The visions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George turning the Clippers into champions are in peril, as the team is within a loss of establishing an entirely different kind of legacy.

Like Clayton Kershaw’s in October.

Or Sean McVay’s at the Super Bowl.

As talented as they are, as dominant as they have looked at times, they can’t close the deal.

Asked directly whether the Clippers choked in Game 6, Leonard replied, “Just went cold.”

Of course, that’s what eventually happens to a body after an obstruction remains lodged in the throat for too long.

“We went cold in that third quarter,” Leonard continued. “We kept getting into the paint, passing the ball, got a little stagnant and just couldn’t make shots.”

That’s not what coach Doc Rivers saw.

“We stopped moving the ball,” Rivers said. “We stopped attacking on offense.

“It’s funny. Usually, at the end of the game, you just say our defense let us down. I thought it was our offense [today]. I really did.”

Confused by the disparity in opinions?

Well, the Clippers were confused by what happened to them.

Their bewilderment was on their faces when Rivers called a timeout with less than three minutes remaining in the game and the Nuggets in front 106-93.

Leonard stared into space. George did too.

Their shock was understandable. The Clippers were to losing on this day what Michael Jordan was to winning at the height of his powers. In retrospect, the outcome felt inevitable.

“You’ve just got to look at it on film and see what changes we need to make,” George said.

George said the Clippers couldn’t match the Nuggets’ elevated pace and tempo in the second half.

“We have to match that on their end, and we have to find our pace and tempo on our end,” George said. “And, like I said, we’ve just got to go back to the film and see what they are doing and why we aren’t matching them.”

Focused on X’s and O’s, George downplayed the emotional or psychological factors that contributed to them caving in.

“No, no, no,” George said.

Rivers also said he believed the Clippers lost their tempo on offense. However, when asked whether that was because they lacked concentration or killer instinct, he replied, “I have no idea.”

Whatever the case, they aren’t the Lakers, who finished the Houston Rockets in five games the previous night.

That reality was conveniently ignored by anyone who was looking ahead to a Lakers-Clippers matchup in the Western Conference finals.

These are the Clippers. They have failed here before.

The “Lob City” Clippers with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin also had a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals in 2015. They lost the series to the Houston Rockets in seven games.

They have since changed their uniforms, but not their name.

They are receiving more support from owner Steve Ballmer than they ever did from Donald Sterling, but the former Microsoft executive can’t buy them a win in a close-out game.

They were the conference’s second-best team in the regular season, but Los Angeles still views them as the “other” team in town.

They are still the Clippers.

And if they don’t figure out how to remove the blockages from their windpipes by Tuesday, they will remain the Clippers, the franchise destined to inflict anguish on the unfortunate souls who adopted them as their team.

Hernandez reported from Los Angeles.