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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors prepare to battle for the NBA championship, the Los Angeles Clippers can only reflect on what might have been after a season of rich promise ended abruptly.
A year after their playoff hopes were rocked by a racism scandal that left previous owner Donald Sterling with a life ban from the NBA, the Clippers seemed set to make a run at a title as they made a stirring start to the postseason.
They came back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in a pulsating opening round, then closed in on a first ever conference final by taking a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets in the second round.
At that point, the Clippers were widely acclaimed as the best team remaining in the playoffs and former Lakers great Magic Johnson predicted they would go on to win the coveted Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
"I've watched all the teams in playoffs and right now the Clippers are playing better than any team left!" five-time NBA champion Johnson tweeted.
"They have a little bit of everything...the Clippers have outside shooting, Blake is dominating, the best leader and coach in Chris Paul & Doc Rivers and great team defense!"
Die-hard Clippers fans savored the prospect of a maiden Western Conference final when only a year ago their team's playoff run ended weeks after racist comments made by Sterling surfaced, sparking public outrage and causing sponsors to quit.
Following protracted legal wrangling, a California appeals court rejected Sterling's last-ditch attempt to block the sale of the Clippers to Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion, and the tech billionaire took over as the new owner in August.
Immediate redemption in their very next season was not to be, however, as the Clippers blew their commanding lead over the Rockets, who became only the ninth team to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win an NBA playoff series.
"It was very frustrating how this season came to an end, with that late collapse against the Rockets," 15-year Clippers fan Griffin Thomas, a medical trainer and physiotherapist aid from Thousand Oaks, told Reuters.
"I definitely thought that they were going to be achieving a little bit more the way the playoffs were unfolding. For whatever reason, the Clippers are just stuck in that same plateau, they're not yet among the elite teams of the league."
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers could only reflect on opportunities lost after his team were ousted from the Western Conference semi-finals for a second straight season.
"We had our chances, there's no doubt about that," he said. "It's funny, we went from good enough to now everything I hear is that we weren't good enough. It's amazing how that flips in sports. We just didn't get the job done."
However, Rivers expressed optimism about the team's immediate future.
"You have the whole summer to get over this," he said. "There have been so many examples of this, where you keep getting close, keep getting close and then you break through. Once you break through, this is forgotten.
"My guess is this'll make our guys work harder this summer, not only physically, but mentally, too."
Asked whether the Clippers' playing staff could undergo big changes before next season, Rivers replied: "We were a quarter away from the Western (Conference) finals, so I don't think we need to blow this thing up.
"We need to add pieces, but it's going to be hard because we are restricted."
The Clippers, spearheaded by All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, expect DeAndre Jordan, who has been the NBA's top rebounder for the past two seasons, to re-sign with the team.
That would then leave the Los Angeles franchise with only the 'mini' mid-level exception of $3.37 million per year for up to three years to offer free agents, along with a few veteran's minimum contracts.
Editing by Frank Pingue