The Clippers Lose to the Thunder, But Still Make History
Forget obligatory press game conference quotes. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, seen saturnine above, capture enough condensed melancholy to have paid a post-game vigil to the Elliott Smith wall in Silver Lake. One picture is worth a thousand sad-faced emojis.
It didn't happen this year for the Clippers. They were out-goofed by the Oklahoma City Thunder: 104-98. They lost the series, 4-2. The most successful and schizophrenic season in franchise history grinds to a nub. With bloodshot eyes, deep forehead creases and a dangling tie, Doc Rivers vowed to reporters that he'd drop 40 pounds and get some rest. The Clippers dynamic duo will lick their wounds with a rigorous summer of exotic vacations, woebegone fashion sprees, and insurance sales. Debauched and deposed owner Donald Sterling will spend the off-season leaving trails of sulfur in law offices across the Southland.
The Western Conference semi-finals was a horrifying psychedelic experience. Both teams were an unpredictable hallucinogen, inflicting both cosmic highs and abject terror. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are powered by plutonium, as good at offense as they're bad at dressing. At times, the Thunder's Scott Brooks coached like he'd plucked his offensive playbook from an Arcade Claw game. Somehow, the Clippers lost to a team that gave crunch time minutes to NBA Stonehenge, Derek Fisher,
Most positives concerned Blake Griffin, who largely confirmed that he's the best traditional power forward in basketball, while Jamal Crawford confirmed that he learned to play the game via a man who sold chocolate mescaline outside of Soundgarden concerts in Seattle. After a stunning first round, D' Andre Jordan disappeared. J.J. Reddick was intermittently effective at knocking down three-pointers, while doing his best to make people forget that he's a white guy from Duke with an Eagle tattoo on his back.
For roughly 97 percent of the series, Chris Paul convinced everyone that he's still the best pure point guard in basketball. He played sinister defense and averaged 22.5 ppg, 12.0 apg, 3.7 rpg, 51.0 FG%, 45.5 3FG%. Yet his unraveling at the end of Game 5 might have been the worst L.A. sports meltdown since Donnie Moore in the 1986 playoffs.
Last night, the Clippers coughed up 16-point lead. If followed their disintegration in the final 40 seconds of Tuesday's Game 5. On Thursday, neither the explosive Staples Center crowd nor the Clippers' clear coaching advantage could force the series back to Oklahoma for a winner-take-all finale. There were plenty of places to find fault, but the Clippers avoided pointing fingers.
"In the locker room after the game, it felt like all the stuff we've gone through was being released... all the emotions," a weary Rivers told the pool of reporters. "It was tough for me to see. I wish I could be there more for them."
Since the Sterling fiasco started two weeks ago, Rivers' stature has been elevated throughout Los Angeles and the nation. He's handled a no-win situation with dignity, scarcely concealed fury, and a sense of restraint. In the process, he instantly became one of the city's most respected figures - near impossible for a former Celtics coach. On Mother's Day, my grandmother even expressed her admiration for him - and I'm pretty sure she doesn't know the difference between the Lakers and Clippers.
Lucy Nicholson for Reuters/Newscom
The Sterling stench continued to linger in the final press conference. Rivers was asked more of those questions than ones about basketball Xs and Os. He refused to ascribe the defeat to exhaustion incurred by the circus. But you could sense the fatigue in all of the post-game comments. There's no denying that it played some minor factor.
Still, it probably was not enough to compensate for the fact that they lost to a better Thunder team. The Clippers might've been deeper and better coached, but they had no answer for Durant or Westbrook, who combined for well over half the Thunder's scoring in the final game.
"We got stagnant. I don't know whether it was just energy or whether we just didn't execute," Griffin said, wearing a black button-up shirt with sperm-like squiggles on it. He wore it like the team played - a size or two too tight.
"It was tough," the crestfallen Paul said, staring numbly at the dais as though it might help him find the right words. "You don't get to be on teams like this very often. It feels like we just figured out now who this team is and how to play... and it's tough to realize that it's over."
For the last 30 years, the Clippers franchise has lacked an identity. Over the last month, it seemed like they started to find one. They stole headlines from the Lakers. The guest list at last night's game included a courtside-sitting pink-haired Rihanna and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. There was Billy Crystal, formerly the Clippers most famous fan. Even Lakers diehards Oscar De La Hoya and Jack Nicholson appeared. Nicholson reportedly left with a smile, which is no surprise. Things can only change so much. A few captivating weeks can't eradicate a generation of jokes.
It was expected that Twitter erupted in a #BeforeTheClippersWinATitle hashtag, which immediately began trending throughout LA. Sample Fodder: Tupac will release another album, Donald Sterling will put Magic Johnson in his will, gas prices will drop to 99 cents #BeforeTheClippersWinATitle.
Most of the enmity came from Lakers acolytes - those aggrieved by the bandwagon fans and Clipper Nation trash-talking that erupted during this Trading Places season.
"I don't see this as an end, but as a beginning," Rivers said, espousing the half-full philosophy. "Earlier in the year, someone asked me about 'Clippers basketball,' and I said 'what the hell is that?' During this playoff series, we figured out what Clipper basketball is and will be."
The easy punchline here is that they lost the series. Ergo, it's Clippers basketball at its most archetypal. But the truth is that we'll remember this season for more than just the Sterling saga and the Lakers' record-setting futility. 2013-14 was the year when Los Angeles legitimately became a two-team basketball city. A Clippers championship won't allow them supplant the Lakers as LA's team (let alone America's). But for the first time ever, the concept of a Clippers championship didn't sound patently absurd.
As fans streamed out of Staples Center, the P.A. announcer addressed the crowd for one last time. He told them how this year allowed Clippers fans to come together like never before. He promised that next year, they would turn the page to another chapter of the team's history, and that they would stand together.
It was the sort of corny platitude that you'd expect from a P.A. announcer being paid by the home team. But you had to acknowledge that he did have a point. For the first time in Clippers history, they actually have a history.