LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The Clippers were on the verge of finally shedding the dubious reputation that has dogged them for decades only to lose in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Changes could be coming in the offseason to a team that will surely be haunted by its epic collapse for a long time.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were within a game of leading the Clippers into the Western Conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s 45-year history only to blow a 3-1 lead and lose the last three games by a combined 46 points to the Houston Rockets.
The trio was 3-0 in Game 7s together until losing 113-100 Sunday on the road. The Clippers never led and trailed by 20 points, ending a season in which they finished 63-33 under second-year coach Doc Rivers.
“Our goal is to be a champion and we’re clearly not that yet,” Rivers said Monday.
Expectations for the Clippers have risen dramatically in the last few years, especially since new owner Steve Ballmer took over this season.
The options are plentiful, including revamping the roster to shake up the Big Three of Paul, Griffin and Jordan after four seasons without a title together, upgrade the bench, or relieve Rivers of his title as president of basketball operations and have someone else focus on handling personnel moves while he coaches.
“I don’t think we need to blow this thing up,” Rivers said. “We don’t need to do a lot.”
Rivers said the team would attempt to re-sign Jordan to a max contract. He will be an unrestricted free agent and can re-sign with the Clippers for more money than any other team could offer him. Or he could decide to leave the city where he’s spent the first seven years of his career.
Although Paul, Griffin and Jordan were at the team’s practice facility Monday, no players spoke to the media.
Paul overcame a strained hamstring that caused him to miss the first two games of the conference semifinals and led the Clippers to blowout wins at home against the Rockets. He had 26 points and 10 assists in Sunday’s loss that meant he still hasn’t reached the conference finals in his 10-year career.
Griffin experienced a career breakout in the playoffs, helping the team beat the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round while showing the all-around offensive and playmaking skills he’s developed. He had 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists Sunday.
“We were close, but close almost doesn’t count,” he said. “You can’t look at anyone but ourselves. In a good way, guys were pressing and trying to get it done. Guys just wanted it so bad, myself included, and we didn’t make the plays.”
The lack of bench production caught up with the Clippers in the playoffs and was especially glaring in Game 7. Sixth man Jamal Crawford was 6 of 18 from the floor for 17 points, with the rest of the reserves combining for four points. The Clippers hold a team option on the 35-year-old guard.
Austin Rivers, the coach’s son, shone in the first round against the Spurs before disappearing. Spencer Hawes never found a role and Glen Davis didn’t play to his potential, in part due to nagging injuries.
“As bad as it was, it was good enough to win us games in the playoffs,” the elder Rivers said of the bench. “But we still need help. The bench has to perform. Spencer is a better player than he performed. This is a big summer for him, we’re going to need him.”
The younger Rivers can become a free agent this summer, but the Clippers can only pay him a certain amount while other teams could pay him more.
“I really want him back,” Doc Rivers said. “He’s a great fit for this team.”
Among the other starters, 35-year-old forward Matt Barnes was scoreless in Game 7, while sharpshooter J.J. Redick was 2 of 9 from 3-point range and had a team-high six turnovers.
The Clippers fell behind early in Game 7 and never appeared energized, the way they did in each of their three wins by margins of 16, 25 and 33 points. They were coming off a stunning collapse at home in Game 6.
Among the critics was former Laker and current Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson, who tweeted, “I thought the Spurs taught the Clippers how to win after a tough 7 game series. I was wrong. The Clippers are still the Clippers.”
“You can’t argue with Magic. He’s right,” Rivers said. “Until we do something, I guess we are the Clippers. I didn’t know that being the Clippers was bad though. I like being a Clipper.”