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Clippers Starting To Roll

When I last covered the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center, in May, they were weary and defeated, having been eliminated in six games by the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. Their future was cloudy, the litigation over the Donald Sterling mess threatening to drag on into this season.

And then, Sterling was deposed, Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer pulled $2 billion out of his pockets, promptly signed Doc Rivers to a five-year extension, and a new era, Clippers A.S. (After Sterling) began. Overnight, the culture changed; this was a team expected not just to contend, but to win, the kind of winning that culminates with parades in June.  You don’t fork over two bil to squeak into the playoffs as an 8th seed; this year, the nucleus is there to get the Clippers deeper into the Western Conference playoffs than they’ve ever been.

Of course, one could argue the nucleus was there last year, but it was obvious during the Thunder series that the Clippers still had some maturing to do.

Which brings us to Saturday night’s game at Staples Center against the New Orleans Pelicans, and their prodigiously talented 21-year-old phenom, Anthony Davis, a 6’10 gazelle with lightning speed and the wingspan of an Airbus. The Clippers wanted to get physical with Davis, push him out of the paint, wear him down, and things couldn’t have started better. Blake Griffin, displaying a defensive prowess not often evident a year ago, leaned and pushed and hounded Davis, and he managed just one shot in the first seven minutes.  By then, sparked by 13 points by JJ Redick, he Clippers had a 13 point lead, en route to a 34-18 first quarter.

“That first quarter of defense was as good as you can get,” Rivers would say later.  “Hands in the right place, deflections – our guys are starting to understand that the more stops you get, the more into a rhythm you get.”

Then it all went to pot. The second unit came in and lost whatever momentum the starters had built up, the Pelicans shooting 73% and, with Davis starting to make his presence felt and Ryan Anderson going off for __ points, outscoring the Clippers, 36-20, to tie the game at 54 heading into the half.  From all reports, the locker room was not a happy place.

“That’s the most upset I’ve seen my players at halftime,” said Rivers. The lesson for the second unit was make your own day. In the fourth quarter, the second unit came in and finished the job this time."

A year ago, or even six weeks ago, when the Clippers stumbled through a 7-5 start, it might’ve been the kind of game the Clippers might not have recovered from, letting frustration and emotion get in the way.  Instead, they locked down the Pelicans in the third and got the running game going, overwhelming the Pelicans with a 39-24 third quarter.  The lead ballooned to 25 midway through the fourth, and the party was on. Griffin, who surpassed 7,000 points earlier in the game, sat out most of the fourth. The Clippers won their seventh straight, 120-100, and are beginning

Davis wound up with 26 points, but they were quiet points, and most tellingly, with Griffin draped over him like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, grabbed only three rebounds. 

"To go against a guy like that is fun," Griffin said of guarding Davis. "Just keep a body on him. It was a team effort."

On this night at least, the singular talents of Davis were no match on this night for the guile of Paul (18 points, 16 assists), the brute force of Griffin (30 points, 7 rebounds), the domination in the paint by Jordan( 18 rebounds, 5 blocks), the instant offense off the bench by Jamal Crawford (20 points). 

The Clippers rained down 17 three-point shots, and more tellingly, tallied 34 assists.  “When we move the ball, it makes JJ and Jamal lethal weapons,” said Rivers.

As the Clippers grow and mature, a more formidable kind of team has emerged, one that stresses tough defense, spreading the court, and making the extra pass. Maybe not as flashy as Lob City, but more substantial, especially if the Clippers hope to be playing deep into May. 

“It’s not the margin that we’re winning by,” said Griffin meaningfully. “It’s how we’re playing.”

Clippers Run Out Of Miracles

It was early in the second quarter of Game 6, and the Clippers had sprinted out to a 16-point lead over the Thunder.  Everything was going their way.  The Oklahoma City Thunder looked disorganized, playing as if resigned to a Game 7.  But one man didn’t like what he saw: Doc Rivers.  “I thought we came out with a lot of emotion to start the game, and I turned to one of my coaches and said, ‘I don’t know if I like this,’ Rivers recalled after the game.  “I was concerned they were going to hit the wall.”

Rivers was right.  The Clippers were never able to sustain the momentum of those first 15 minutes.  They spent the rest of the game waiting for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to take over, and eventually, after a slow start, they did.  In a rampaging performance, Durant flashed his MVP chops with 39 points (25 in the second half), 14 rebounds, and 5 assists, and the mercurial Westbrook capped off a wondrous series with a 10-point fourth quarter and 17 second-half points.   In the end, the Clippers ran out of gas, ran out of miracles, and finally, ran out of time, as the Thunder eliminated them, 104-98, moving on to the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

It was a depressingly familiar scenario for the Clippers, who have never made it out of the second round of the playoffs, and are now 0-6 when trailing a best-of-7 playoff series 3-2.  It was perhaps most depressing for Chris Paul, who’s yet to reach a conference finals in his nine years in the league.

"I just feel awful for him," Rivers said. "He's the spirit of our team. Right now, his spirit is broken."

After the Clippers’ epic meltdown at the end of Game 5, with Paul taking full responsibility for a series of crucial mistakes in the final minute, the script called for a huge bounce-back game for the Clippers’ floor leader.  But though he tallied 25 points and 11 assists, it was another uneven fourth-quarter for Paul, who committed two turnovers and was whistled for an offensive foul that negated a DeAndre Jordan dunk and blunted a final Clippers charge. Even before that, Paul’s shot was off all night, and he was never able to get control of the offense.  As great as he was in the regular season, the whispers that Paul does not come up big in the biggest games will only get louder.

"We have a really good team, a great team,” said Paul afterwards. “It's crazy. You play all season long, and the last few games, we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it's crazy that it's over."

But before you lament another Clippers season ending the way they usually do; before you point out that the Clippers advanced no further than they did two seasons ago with Vinnie Del Negro as coach, consider what they had to play through these last few weeks.  This was the most successful team in Clippers history, winning 57 games and the Pacific Division.   Doc Rivers brought a stability and leadership unmatched by previous regimes.  But this year’s playoffs will forever be tarnished by the ongoing Donald Sterling scandal, and while the players and Rivers refused to use it as an excuse, the emotional strain of playing through threats of boycotts, pressure by family and friends, and subsequent ill-timed interviews by the clueless Sterlings, both Donald and wife Shelly, clearly caught up to them.

"I don't think that was why we didn't win,” said Rivers. “I don't think we should use that as an excuse. We're a team in process. I believe we were good enough to win it this year. Oklahoma City told us we were not."

Game 6 certainly didn’t start that way.  With celebs like Rhianna and Oscar De La Hoya in attendance; with longtime Lakers fan Jack Nicholson courtside next to James Brooks, the Clippers came out of the gate showing no ill effects from their Game 5 collapse.  Blake Griffin scored early and often against nemesis Serge Ibaka,

Durant and Westbrook missed 11 of their first 12 shots, and when Westbrook went to the bench with two early fouls, the crowd roared, sensing a golden opportunity.

As it turned out, the Clippers had saved their best for that first quarter, and had little left to give thereafter.  Three consecutive treys by Durant, some on missed coverages by Clipper defenders, turned the game for good in the second quarter.   By halftime, with the Thunder within 8 at 50-42, despite Durant and Westbrook combining to shoot 4-16, there was an inevitable sense of what was coming.  In the third quarter, Westbrook broke through with 7 points and 7 assists, feeding the suddenly-hot Durant, who hit all five of his shots and scored 14 points.

And with unsung bigs Steven Adams and Nick Collison covering ably for Serge Ibaka’s injury, and with the Clippers’ normally reliable bench unable to get anything going, their spirit was finally broken.   Tied going into the fourth, the Thunder pulled away like racehorses with a 10-run.  Even down 11 with three minutes left, the Clippers summoned up the energy for one last heroic effort, using a 7-0 run to get within four at 97-93, but they couldn’t get hit the key shot or get a stop when they needed it.   In the end, there was no shame in losing to a superior team, but it was the lost opportunities of Game 5 that will haunt the Clips.

It’s gonna hurt for a while,” said a dejected Chris Paul after.  “We should’ve been here up 3-2, with a chance to close it out.  “It’s a long summer, I tell you that much.”

The hint of how bad a summer it could be began even before the game, when Donald Sterling’s lawyer, Maxwell M. Blecher, announced that the owner would not pay his $2.5 million fine, and that Sterling was prepared to fight the NBA’s attempt to remove him.  The players’ wish that Sterling be removed before the start of next season looks highly unlikely, given that the protracted legal battle that’s ahead.

And if that’s the case – what then?  Does Doc Rivers walk away?  Will the current players be pressured not to wear the Clippers uniform while Sterling is still in power?  Will any free agent even consider joining them? 

"Like I've said before, I'm under contract," Rivers said. "I have no plans on going anywhere, as far as I know."

Unfortunately for the Clippers, neither does Sterling.   Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride ahead.

Clippers Save Their Season With Game 4 Comeback

It may be too early to call the Clippers a team of destiny, but their season is getting more magical by the minute.  What began as a Mother’s Day Massacre turned into a Mother’s Day Miracle, as the Clippers stormed back from a 16-point fourth quarter deficit and overtook the Thunder, 101-99, to even the series at 2-2.

It was one of the most deliriously improbable comebacks the Clippers have staged. It came with a “small ball” lineup the Clippers rarely use. It came with a defensive matchup almost never seen: the six-foot Chris Paul guarding the six-nine Kevin Durant. It came with Blake Griffin playing with five fouls, and playing, as coach Doc Rivers had urged him to, as if he had just one. It came with the Clippers hitting 13 of their final 16 shots, after they started the game missing 21 of their first 25. And it came with Clippers facing a must-win situation, or else fall behind 3-1, a hole that few NBA playoff teams have climbed out of. It was a day when the Clippers refused to die, even after they’d long been left for dead.

Heroes abounded, none more unlikely than Darren Collison, once a UCLA teammate of Russell Westbrook, who scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and, post-game, was awarded the game ball by Chris Paul.  "Darren Collison was amazing. You just got to love a guy like that who plays with so much heart and never gives up,” said Paul.

But it was Paul who did what all great leaders do: stepping up to do the dirty work when his team needed it most; in this case, switching on to Durant who, two minutes into the fourth quarter, had already torched the Clippers for 35 points. Though Durant wound up with 40, on 12-24 shooting, he took only 3 of his team’s final 15 shots, with Paul disrupting his dribble and with swarming double teams that forced Durant into three critical turnovers that the Clippers converted.

“I don’t think that’s brilliant coaching, it was desperate coaching,” said Rivers about the decision to put Paul on KD. “We were just looking for any combination.  Yesterday at the staff meeting, we had talked about how Durant was beating us off the dribble… but if you put a guard on him, you take that away; make him a post-up player.”

Asked about how the Clippers contained him, a subdued Durant shook his head.  “Nothing changed; they didn’t do nothing," he said. “He didn’t guard me one-on-one; they did a good job double-teaming me.”

“I just tried to make it as tough as possible for him,” said Paul.  “Tried to crowd him… it was tough trying to defend him and be aggressive offensively.”

But Paul was just that, scoring 23 points and adding 10 assists, including a gorgeous give-and-go to Griffin that tied the score at 94 late.

The comeback began in earnest with 9:01 remaining in the fourth and the Clippers down 82-66.  By that point, the Thunder had seemingly fended off every Clippers charge; the lead had hovered around the 10-12 mark for almost the entire second half.  The building was dead; fans could barely be summoned to wave the white towels that had been placed on every seat.  Griffin had five fouls, DeAndre Jordan, Matt Barnes, and JJ Redick had combined for a paltry 13 points, and Durant and Westbrook were having their way.

Finally, it seemed, the Clippers had tapped whatever was left in the tank.  They appeared listless when the game started, with OKC jumping out to a 29-7 lead and hitting 9 of their first 11 shots, many of them uncontested threes after Rivers had preached the need for defense pre-game.   By the end of the first quarter, the Clippers had made just 6 of 24 shots and trailed by 17.

Led by Paul, they climbed back into the game in the second, as OKC cooled, the Clippers remembered their defensive rotations, and Sixth Man of the Year Jamaal Crawford came off the bench for 11 badly needed points.  But after trailing by 11 at halftime, they couldn’t make up ground in the third quarter, and by the fourth, things looked bleak.

Said Collison later: The whole time I'm thinking, we can't be down 3-1… we just can't be down 3-1 going to Oklahoma."

With 8:44 to go, Griffin replaced Jordan and joined Paul, Collison, Crawford and Danny Granger to form the small lineup that would turn the game around.  "I'm not sure we ever used that lineup," Rivers said later. "But that group won the game for us tonight."

As always, it was a very physical game, with lots of chippy play, shoves, pushes, and players entangled, be it arms or legs. In the fourth quarter, the referees let the players play, to Griffin’s benefit; he could’ve easily picked up his sixth foul on a Westbrook drive with six minutes remaining and the Clippers down 8.   But there was no call; Paul converted a runner on the other end to bring the deficit down to 6, and the charge was on.   The Clippers outscored the Thunder 38-24 in the fourth, with Paul, Crawford and Collison combining for 27 of those points.

And while Durant and Westbrook remained an almost unstoppable duo, combining for 67 of the Thunder’s 99 points, in the end it was the Clippers’ collective trust, will and balance that prevailed.  In those frantic final minutes, it seemed like any one of the five Clippers players on the floor could take a shot; by contrast, any OKC player not named Durant or Westbrook all but disappeared.

"Even though we didn't play well throughout the game, we were able to get a win," Collison said. "That feels more impressive than anything we did."   After the disappointing loss in Game 3, when the Thunder stars stepped up to hit the big shots while the Clippers’ stars faltered, it was the Clippers who made all the big plays and right decisions in Game 4.

“We were almost on the mat and we got off of it. We didn't get pinned," said Rivers. "They're seething right now. They had an opportunity to go up 3-1 and now it's an even series."

Clippers Answer The Bell

In the end, it came down to basketball, thrilling, offensive basketball. The Clippers put aside Donald Sterling and distractions from the outside world, and, after scaring their fans with a lackluster first half, stormed back to outshoot, outmuscle, and outplay the Warriors to win Game 7.

Clippers Rise To The Moment In Game 5

While the story is far from over, a tidal wave of relief swept through the entire Clippers organization and fan base, culminating in a night-long celebration at Staples Center.

Lakers Make The Wrong Statement

The Lakers needed to make a statement in their game against the Heat on Thursday night, and they did. The statement was basically: “We are not good enough to beat the good teams.”

Lakers Continue To Self-Destruct

It’s tough to tell which is coming first: is Kobe Bryant taking over the game because his teammates are deferring to him, or are they deferring to him because they’re waiting for him to take over?

A Los Angeles Rivalry At Last

Step by step, game by game, the Clippers are shedding their image of perennial losers. And the good news is, they’re taking it in stride, refusing to get caught up in the hype, and downplaying the significance of beating the Lakers.

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