The Clippers lost their owner, lost their focus and lost their energy.
But they became one voice.
The Clippers became one voice because they said so on their T-shirts. The Clippers became one voice as coach Doc Rivers became the lone representative openly talking about the controversy stemmed from Donald Sterling making racially disparaging remarks on an audio tape released over a week ago. The Clippers became one voice when, as Matt Barnes observed afterwards, he marveled at how the team learned to trust each other through the good, the bad and the ugly.
So once it all became clear the Clippers would close out their competitive, draining and unpredictable first-round series that ended with a 126-121 Game 7 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday at Staples Center, Rivers performed a fist-pumping dance along the sidelines. After exuding a sense of calmness despite the swirling chaos around him, Rivers could finally let loose.
“I needed to exhale some,” Rivers said. “This was a hard week. Was it a week? I don’t even know. It feels like two months. It’s been hard. It was for me too. I needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer and be proud of something. I was very proud of my players.”
The Clippers’ resilience began last week when TMZ released a nine-minute phone conversation between Sterling and a female companion named V. Stiviano in which the two argued endlessly. Sterling sounded upset both that Stiviano posted a picture of herself and Lakers legend Magic Johnson on Instagram and that she brought black friends to Clippers games. Stiviano sounded upset Sterling would make such dismissive remarks while denying that they reeked of racial insensitivity. The Clippers sounded upset for all sorts of legitimate reasons. The majority of their team consists of black players. The majority of the NBA promotes diversity. This controversy came on the heels of a competitive first-round series against Golden State that already entailed concerns surrounding their perimeter shooting, up-tempo offense and contentious rivalry.
“You could see certain guys were really emotional about the situation,” said Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who posted a team-leading 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting. “This was the first day. It got a lot bigger. At the point that we had the meeting, this was obviously a huge thing. It grew and grew and grew with each day and hour. It wore on guys.”
Rivers sensed that happening during Friday’s film session and walkthrough where players looked exhausted. Instead of berating them, Rivers cut the session after 30 minutes and told his players to rest up. They reported to morning shootaround on Sunday with sharper energy and focus.
The Clippers maintained that spirit when Golden State made 60 percent of their shots in the first half. The Warriors splished with Stephen Curry and splashed with Klay Thompson. The Warriors fans that infiltrated Staples Center grew louder.
And yet, the Clippers didn’t feel overwhelmed as they trailed 64-56 after two quarters.
“At halftime, you would’ve thought we were up,” Griffin said. “No one was down on ourselves. We kept pushing and kept fighting.”
And so they did.
The Clippers took their first lead of the game, 73-72 with 6:02 left in the period, after going on an 11-2 run that entailed a flurry of fast-break points, jumpers and dunks. Meanwhile, the Clippers held the Warriors to only a 36.8 percent clip.
“Doc told us to keep trusting each other. It’s a long game.” said Clippers forward Jamal Crawford who scored 22 points on 7 of 12 shooting off the bench. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t get on an emotional rollercoaster. This is adversity and good for you guys.’ We still believed.”
And so the Clippers hardly looked fazed when they closed out a game that featured four ties and seven lead changes. Griffin and Jordan threw down lobs. Jordan blocked a shot as Curry drove the lane. The Clippers made their last six foul shots. Even when Golden State cut the lead with Curry drawing a foul on a three-point play or Draymond Green three-pointer, the Clippers maintained their poise by scoring on the other end immediately.
“Our guys fought the adversity and they went through it,” Rivers said. “I thought it drained them and they found enough energy to win the game.”
And now that they did, the Clippers sounded as if they could conquer anything.
They recognized the burden that their Western Conference semifinals matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder already begins on Monday. But Rivers gave his team a comprehensive scouting report for them to study overnight. The Clippers seem aware that the uncertainty surrounding their future owner will continue to evolve. But the Clippers believe the most stressful part surrounding the initial fall out has died down. Rivers looked back at 2008 when he won his lone NBA championship in Boston and attributed that success to seven-game series against Atlanta and Cleveland. He believes that story applies to the current Clippers.
“Every time you go through one of those tests, your team gets closer,” Rivers said. “They start believing and trusting more. We went through the tough battles with Golden State and outside distractions. That combination is enough adversity for a while.”
And as soon as that adversity ended, Rivers jumped up and down, swung out his arms and yelled out a roar. Rivers exuded a sense of relief his team conquered something great, intent that this just marked the beginning.
“I’m exhausted, everybody is, not just physically but mentally,” Crawford said. “But we are mentally tough.”
And they are also one voice.
“Because of this week, I’ll remember this game for a long, long time,” Rivers said. “I love them. They’re tough and we never splintered. That’s what you don’t know. We never splintered. We hung in there. After losses, everybody was down. But there was no adversity, no bickering, no second guessing. They are committed. I know that now.”