By Bill Plaschke Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES—Their owner was thrown out of the league, their organization is buried in chaos, yet the Clippers play on.
They were humiliated by hate, distracted by protests, exhausted by stress, yet the Clippers play on.
It was a series that could have finished them. It was, instead, a series that has defined them.
Exactly one week after their world was rocked by the release of an audio recording of racially charged comments by owner Donald Sterling, the Clippers finished their fight through the sludge Saturday with a 126-121 victory over the Golden State Warriors in the deciding Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.
This final three-hour sprint was as tough as the previous two-week marathon but, in the end, for once, the Clippers were tougher.
They fell behind by a dozen in the first half. They trailed by eight at halftime. They seemed emotionally empty. The Warriors were making shots from every corner and taunting with both hands. The Clippers were chasing and gasping. The hundreds of Warriors fans that had infiltrated Staples Center were making the noise of thousands.
Yet midway through the third quarter, a DeAndre Jordan block and a couple of Chris Paul jumpers got the Clippers started, and here they came, bringing the roaring red-shirted fans to their feet with seemingly every streak down the court. J.J. Redick splashed. Blake Griffin bulled. Stephen Curry missed and missed.
The Clippers outscored the Warriors, 31-20, in the quarter, and during the break, the loudspeakers appropriately blared the song with the words, “The ceiling can’t hold us.”
Nothing seemingly could hold them in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers fell briefly behind again, but came back with swarming defense and daring offense, clinching the game in the final two minutes on several plays Clippers fans will be talking about all summer.
There was the blocked shot by Jordan, followed by an ally-oop dunk by Griffin on a pass from Redick. There was the dunked follow by Jordan. Then there was the flailing, falling, spinning layup by Griffin.
In the end, there was Coach Doc Rivers wildly pumping his fist to the crowd while the standing and screaming fans showered love upon a slumped and sweat-dripping team that had just enough to survive. While some may say they only won a series they were supposed to win against a lower-seeded and outmanned Warriors team, the truth is they won a series they had every reason to lose.
Sterling has been banned from the NBA, nobody knows who’s in charge, Rivers, the Clippers coach, even had to give a pep talk to the tearful front office, yet the Clippers play on
They will now fly to Oklahoma City for a second-round series against the Western Conference’s top-seeded Thunder beginning Monday, but it’s difficult to imagine this team now being intimidated by anything.
Their Game 7 comeback mirrored the series from the moment Sterling’s words became public on the day between Games 3 and 4.
Initially, the Clippers were humiliated and considered a boycott. When they finally decided to play, they barely played, and were beaten easily in Game 4 to tie the series.
They returned home to the news the NBA had banned Sterling for life, leading to a relieved victory in Game 5. But then, worn out from that initial rush of emotion, they were beaten by a point in a Game 6 that wasn’t that close.
All of this led to Saturday night at Staples Center.
There were many winners here, the first being those fans who embraced the team through their dislike for its owner. The Clipper Nation — and, indeed, they seemed like a nation this week — was so loud during pregame warmups in the Clippers’ first appearance there since the scandal that Paul said he had to fight back tears. While there are many more Lakers fans in Los Angeles, the Clippers fans are establishing themselves as just as loud and passionate.
The biggest winner in the Clippers locker room was new boss Rivers, who could be named coach of the year simply for his performance of the last two weeks. His $7-million contract and accompanying hype now seem justified after he kept his team from collapsing under the weight of all the stress placed upon them by the Sterling scandal.
Before the game, Rivers was talking about the sort of thing his team was hearing from him, the sorts of things that perhaps can build champions.
“They’ve been through a lot, I keep trying to tell them, to win what we want to win, it’s hard, and there’s probably going to be some adversity,” he said. “We probably had more than you probably deserve, yet still, it’s adversity, and you just have to get through it.”
They got through thanks to another hero, Paul, playing hard despite battling injuries to his hamstring and thumb. Despite being surrounded by giants, Paul remains the toughest guy on the floor, chasing Curry into constant frustration while scoring 22 points with 14 assists.
“He can’t get away from anybody offensively,” said Rivers of Paul before the game. “When you watch him on film, he really struggles…. We’re trying to use more picks just to get them off his body and that hasn’t been very effective.”
Paul overcame. Jordan overwhelmed. Griffin overpowered. The Clippers play on.