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NBA Playoffs 2016: L.A. Clippers facing the end of an era in Portland tonight

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With Blake Griffin and Chris Paul out with injuries, the Clippers are both on the brink of elimination and the end of the Lob City era.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night's game between the L.A. Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers was so huge that Tim Brown of The Oregonian wondered aloud about where the game ranked in recent Blazers history.

That's an incredibly lofty standard considering that Brown included Portland's loss to the L.A. Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals as "recent", but with their win against the Clippers in Game 5 the Blazers found themselves in surprisingly unfamiliar territory in the unexpected position as favorites to advance to the second round with a win on Friday.

On one hand, a trip to the second round would be the second for the Blazers in three years. On the other hand, it would also be just the second time making the second round since that crazy 2000 run — putting things in historical perspective, it really isn't all that far-fetched to consider that Game 5 one of the biggest games in recent history. Go back even further in Blazers' history, and it might still rank pretty high when considering they've lost in the first round 13 times since reaching the 1992 NBA Finals

We often groan about how terrible the Warriors have been since the early '90s, but the Blazers have been differently tortured by a glass ceiling that they've tirelessly run into.

Coming back to the present state of affairs, Dave Deckard of Blazers Edge summarized what was at stake for the Clippers in Game 5 on Tuesday night in advance of the big Game 5 matchup.

Recapping those progressions:

Blazers Win Game 5, Clippers need a huge miracle, flip a coin if Game 7 happens.

Clippers Win Game 5, Clippers get a free roll in Portland, flip a coin if Game 7 happens.

The difference between L.A. requiring a miracle or requiring nothing in Game 6 could easily define this series. The first way momentum and confidence remain with Portland no matter what. The second path gives the same to the Clippers no matter what.

To say the Clippers are in a tough spot is probably an understatement — the writing is on the wall for them to follow a path of stagnation, qualifying for the playoffs without competing for a championship, and at some point it only makes sense to break the cycle before disappointment turns into complacency.

Their predicament goes well beyond this season and could possibly lead to an offseason in which they're forced to tear down Lob City brick by brick, which is something that even Clippers fans are starting to come to terms with as described by Niels Pineda of Clips Nation.

In short, a loss in Game 6 to eliminate the Clippers from the postseason could in fact be the end of an era, as described by Rohan Naokarni of Sports Illustrated.

The Clippers have been a great team. Their starting five the last three seasons put on an offensive display nearly on par with Golden State's aerial attack...The Clippers and Paul, perhaps better than anyone, embody the ugly side of basketball's championship-or-bust mentality. Will history choose to remember the Lob City Clippers? They never made a conference final, but they were always great. You may have grown to hate them, but they almost always found themselves mixed up in the league's most interesting storylines.

If this really is the end for this iteration of the Clippers, and they make big changes in the off-season, it probably makes sense for a team founded on one of the most fascinating scenarios in NBA history to make us always wonder, what if?

Although nobody remembers who finishes second place, people do tend to looked fondly upon "what if" stories, the stories begging to be finished that leave us either wanting for more or longing for another taste.

Yet the one thing Naokarni didn't mention is that the official fall of Lob City will also signal a final surrender to the Splash Brothers and DubNation, a rivalry that held so much potential but never actually took off in any meaningful or maybe even memorable way long-term.

And that's not just a loss for Clippers fans, but Warriors fans and NBA fans generally.

As described by Brian Palmer of Slate — and many others in the last few years — we love rivalries not only because our brains are wired to understand meaning in terms of contrasts but also because the psychological rewards of conquering an opponent during a competition are familiar. And when it's one opponent that consistently gets in the way of those rewards in meaningful circumstances, the thirst for those rewards intensify. In a 2014 Wall Street Journal article by Ben Cohen, Harvard psychologist Mina Cikara described the appeal of rivalries (in college football) perfectly as "...competition over time...opportunity for attitudes and emotions to become more polarized and entrenched."

The Warriors and Clippers had all the conditions for a great rivalry — regional tension, players publicly talking trash, seemingly in each other's way to battle for a space among contenders (until the Warriors just passed everyone — except one thing: history.

"Rivalry is fundamentally related to competition, but it’s competition over time [that provides an] opportunity for attitudes and emotions to become more polarized and entrenched."-Harvard psychologist Mina Cikara

Yes, that first round playoff series was full of drama, both on and off the court; Kent Bazemore clowning Blake Griffin from the sidelines is still classic; David Lee yelling, "Stop flopping!" at Blake Griffin is by far my favorite moment of his Warriors career; the Clippers constantly trying to whine and flop their way to success; Mark Jackson vs. Doc Rivers as the two "old school" coaches leading two the league's top modern point guards at the helm of two of the most exciting offenses; as Naokarni wrote, even if the two teams were never directly battling for a title, they were battling for top entertainment value.

At its height, this rivalry contained some of the best the NBA could offer, seemingly both in the present and into the future.

But in terms of actually establishing any sort of real rivalry — having the time for these feelings "to become more polarized and entrenched" over an extended period of time — it cooled off almost as soon as the two teams were evenly matched enough to even be considered rivals. After the spring of 2014 when an embattled Clippers franchise advanced to the second round (and past their blatantly racist owner), the Warriors have dominated their meetings since while the teams were never simultaneously good enough prior to Mark Jackson's arrival for it to even be considered a meaningful competition.

While the rest of the league will probably lament the fall of Lob City in the coming weeks and months, Warriors fans have already accepted its fall for at least a month, if not more — as Andy Liu wrote back on March 24, "The Golden State Warriors aren't worried about the Los Angeles Clippers anymore. They're onto bigger, better, and perhaps, the greatest of things." That was before the absolutely tragic injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul that have deprived us of a meaningful series with the Clippers just as the zombies from Houston robbed us of what could've been a classic Western Conference Finals series last year.

As much as there's a short-term reward for watching the Clippers insofar as we've hated that team from SoCal so much for a few years, we've lost the ongoing rewards that might have come from an ongoing rivalry. In no longer having to worry about the Clippers, something will always feel a bit incomplete about this rivalry that never really was.