They were tired. They were frustrated. They were finished.
Elbows were thrown. A jersey was torn off. Rims were clanked, balls were lost, and it finished with a shove.
The Clippers’ magical run ended in a mess Wednesday night, this wondrous team ultimately haunted by their present and doomed by their past.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center, the Suns clinched the series and the Clippers clenched their teeth in a 130-103 Suns victory that gave Phoenix a four-games-to-two decision.
The Suns advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years. The Clippers had advanced to the conference finals for the first time in 37 years in Los Angeles, but will go no further.
It was fun while it lasted, but it could have lasted longer. They came within two late breaks of winning two more games in this series, and if only they had Leonard …
“We would have been going on,” said Paul George. “This series would have been a lot different … we were inches away.”
Instead, they wound up miles away, finally collapsing under their short-handed burden.
“I thought we ran out of gas,” said coach Tyronn Lue.
George, who had played more minutes than anyone in these NBA playoffs, scored but 21 points, had only two more baskets than turnovers, and made just three baskets in the second half. He was wiped out.
“It is what it is,” said George. “I came up short again … my good wasn’t enough.”
Weariness was everywhere. Reggie Jackson, who played big minutes as Mr. June, whiffed on eight of 12 shots. Terance Mann, who scored 39 points in the clincher against Utah, had just five. The Clippers were outscored by 20 points in the paint and outdone by nine points on second-chance balls. They were all wiped out.
“It sucks that it’s cut short … but couldn’t be prouder … couldn’t be prouder,” said a tearful Jackson.
The crowd agreed, roaring until the end, coming alive as it did throughout a postseason that was an affirmation of a real live Clippers Nation. But even the stands, which were dotted with Suns fans, contained a disappointment when a brutal fight broke out behind one of the baskets late in the game.
“We thank you for your support in this most historic season,” said public-address announcer Eric Smith as the crowd finally, reluctantly, sullenly departed.
They indeed made history, but it ended in histrionics. The Clippers had trailed most of the game, it looked like they could come back again … and then their past showed up and tauntingly took them down.
With 4:01 left in the third quarter, the Suns led by 17, but then the Clippers went on a 10-0 run. A Nicolas Batum layup, George free throws, a Marcus Morris three, a Batum three, and they were back in the game, trailing by seven with 1:43 left.
Then Chris Paul showed up.
Yes, that Chris Paul, at age 36 and in his 16th season. Yes, the same Chris Paul who spent six tantalizing years with the Clippers, forever failing to take Lob City to the next level.
Paul has never been in an NBA Finals, and suddenly, finally, this time, he played like nobody could keep him away.
With the crowd roaring and the Suns reeling, Paul ended everything. He hit an open three. He hit a layup. He frustrated DeMarcus Cousins into elbowing him in the head. He hit another three. The quarter ended with the Suns owning a 14-point lead, and the television insurance salesman was just getting started.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Paul hit a layup, and another layup, and a runner, and a fall-away jumper, then capped his run with a three-pointer while being knocked flat before adding a free throw.
Oh, wait. He hit another runner. He hit another three. He didn’t stop until, during a timeout, the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley cheaply shoved him in the back, resulting in an ejection that Beverley turned into a fashion show by hurling his jersey into the stands.
In the second half, Paul scored 31 points, more than any Clipper scored for the game. Overall, Paul scored 41 points with just eight misses among 24 shots and including seven three-pointers.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like that, but that’s who Chris is,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “He was tired and he was still making those kinds of plays — getting to the basket, the threes, orchestrating everything.”
Then, for Clippers fans wishing they could have seen this several years ago, it got worse. After the game the Suns accepted the Western Conference trophy at midcourt while a tearful Paul was interviewed over the public-address system.
There were hundreds of Suns fans who cheered, but most of the remaining spectators grumbled and groaned and even booed in a most awkward end to a difficult night. It was a shame, because throughout the postseason Clippers fans were as much a part of the magic as the Clippers, emerging from the Los Angeles sports landscape shadows, turning Staples Center into a sea of red and black and love.
“I want to say thank you to the fans,” said Lue. “I mean, they were unbelievable throughout this whole journey.”
They were together until the end, the Clippers and their nation, until the fans finally gave standing ovations to each of the players as they left the game in the final minutes.
Both the team and the crowd ended the run on their feet, haunted by their present, doomed by their past, but, for once, clearly in possession of a future.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.