LOS ANGELES Chauncey Billups is expected to show up Tuesday at the Clippers facility, a reminder of the team's carefree and confident days, when anything the Clippers hoped for seemed as much in reach as an alley-oop pass.
Now, after a dispiriting 94-85 loss to Boston, the gravity of Billups' absence, the weight of new expectations and the depth of their shortcomings has become increasingly clear.
It was Los Angeles' fourth loss in five games, and dropped them to 8-10 since Billups tore his Achilles tendon, precipitating a fall from second place to fifth in the Western Conference, a once-certain playoff berth now secured by a margin of just 2 games.
The look and sound like a team without answers.
Coach Vinny Del Negro's long-winded responses filled time and space, but provided little insight. Neither did the brief team meeting afterward. Chris Paul threw his hands up when he was asked how the Clippers could be fixed.
"Good question," he said.
Over in a quiet corner of the locker room, Caron Butler surveyed the scene where self doubt and frustration were scattered like dirty towels and gave a nod of familiarity, as if he had seen this movie before.
"This is the same kind of thing we're going through over here," said Butler, who was in Dallas last year when the Mavericks collapsed after his season-ending knee injury on New Year's Day, losing six in a row and encountering chemistry and clubhouse issues.
It all ended just fine, of course, the Mavericks winning their first NBA title precisely because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
"We were trying to find the chemistry, we were changing lineups," Butler recalled. "It came to a point where everybody was just like, you know, we've got to rally around each other, we've got to pull for one another. Who cares if it's their night? Everybody's got to chip in.
"It happened, whatever it was, it happened. And it was magic because people don't realize what was going on in behind the closed doors. I tell these guys," Butler continued, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart. "We were that far from being real bad, and that far from being real good, and something happened."
The problem, by now, is apparent. The Clippers' offense without Billups and without Butler as a consistent scorer no longer covers up the blemishes at the defensive end of the court. And, as happened in the waning moments of recent losses to San Antonio, Golden State (twice), Phoenix, Minnesota and New Jersey, the Clippers could not get the stops they needed to secure a late lead.
The Clippers had roared back from a 71-61 deficit early in the fourth quarter Monday, surging into a 78-74 lead on Bobby Simmons' 3-pointer with 4:24 left. The Celtics called timeout, then blitzed the Clippers the rest of the way, leaving them defenseless when a switch on a screen landed Simmons on Kevin Garnett, who simply turned and sank a 21-foot jumper with 38.4 seconds left, all but sealing the victory.
In many ways, the Celtics are the model upon which the Clippers have been built, when they brought in Ray Allen and Garnett alongside Paul Pierce and in their first season together, 2008, they rolled to the best record in the league and the NBA title.
If it seemed easy, it was not. Miami tried it with Le Bron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and it was not enough to beat the Mavericks, and the Clippers though they don't have a third star surrounded Blake Griffin and Paul with very capable pieces in Butler, Mo Williams and Billups, and up-and-coming center DeAndre Jordan.
"Look at the Philadelphia Eagles. They thought they were going to be indoctrinated as Super Bowl champs because they had great moves in the off-season," Allen said. "But you've got to come to a team and do things on the team's terms and not on your own. It's even bigger than chemistry you've got to figure out the mojo of that particular team and what the coach wants from you and reshape who you are as a player. When I came here, I couldn't be the number 34 Allen that averaged 27.5 points a game. I was going to be the number 20 Allen, averaging 18 points a game. It felt like a huge change, but I was willing to accept it because I knew what the ultimate goal is."
Boston coach Doc Rivers said the difference between his team in 2008 and Miami and the Clippers may simply be experience.
"When you have younger guys, that's not as easy," Rivers said. "They think it's going to last forever and the urgency is not there. We had a group with a sense of urgency about them. I think Miami has that this year. You can see that in the way they play. The Clippers, just watching them on paper, with all the talent they have, they're going to get it together. It could be this year. It could be in a couple of years, who knows?"
Nobody knows how that goes better than Rivers, injuries to Garnett and Kendrick Perkins leaving the Celtics to wonder what might have been.
And for the flailing Clippers, whose effort and energy has waxed and waned in a season that is just as hard on the mind as it is the body, that might be the most valuable lesson.
"I don't think you can ever take a year for granted," Rivers said. "If you have a shot, you've got to take it because the following year, you never know what can happen."