The NBA took one giant step for mankind Tuesday afternoon – and the Clippers took one small step towards greatness Tuesday night.
Good basketball teams win the games they're supposed to win. Great basketball teams find a way to win the games they are supposed to win, even when they're emotionally exhausted from off-court problems and aren't playing particularly well.
The Clippers took a small-but-significant step toward becoming a great team Tuesday night when they found a way to shake off the Donald Sterling hangover and beat the Golden State Warriors 113-103. The breathless victory came in front of a Staples Center crowd that was ready to explode from the opening tip but soon became nervous and anxious all night, right up to the moment that DeAndre Jordan banked in a foul shot with 1:38 left to push the lead to 10 points. That was when they knew the Sterling racism nightmare was finally over, after 96 of the most tumultuous hours in the Clippers long, strange 44-year history.
The victory gave the Clips a 3-2 lead in their first round series, with game six Thursday night in the Bay Area and a winner-take-all game 7, if necessary, Saturday at Staples Center.
It was a game in which the Clippers as a team never found their mojo and had to rely on individual bursts of excellence to carry them home. The No. 1 problem was that Blake Griffin was missing in action for the first three quarters because Golden State Coach Mark Jackson finally made the tactical switch that had been crying out to be made all series: the Warriors double-teamed Griffin whenever he got the ball deep in the post. Most of the time that forced him to turn his back to the basket and become a playmaker for his teammates rather than a scorer, and he was held to 10 points through the first three quarters. His offensive problems were compounded when he was called for his fourth foul with more than eight minutes left in the third quarter and Coach Doc Rivers sat him down until the fourth quarter.
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Griffin's absence opened the way for his lob-city buddy Jordan to become an unlikely offensive hero. Jordan, who finished third in the league's Defensive Player of the Year voting, had his best offensive game of the season and finished as the Clips' leading scorer with 25 points.
Meanwhile most of the other Clips were busy matching the crowd's mood: trying a little too hard, blowing opportunity after opportunity to open a big lead on the out-gunned Warriors, and waiting for an offensive explosion similar to their 40 point beat down in game 2, an explosion that never came on this most emotional of nights.
Chris Paul, who finished with 20 points, was never bigger than when the Warriors' Stephen Curry hit a pull-up three-pointer to give the Warriors a 70-69 lead near the end of the third quarter after trailing by 5-10 points all night. Paul took the in-bounds pass, rushed the length of the court and nailed a trifecta of his own to immediately restore the Clips lead to 72-70. He drilled another trifecta over Curry as the third quarter ended to push the lead to 77-72 and give the Clips – and the crowd – a bit of breathing space entering the fourth quarter.
Griffin took over in the fourth, scoring 8 of his 18 points and overpowering David Lee and Draymond Green in the process. Jamal Crawford came off the bench to ride shotgun, hitting big shot after big shot to finish with 19 points.
After the game the Clippers players and Coach Doc Rivers were forced once more to answer just as many questions about Sterling as about the game. Yes, they were satisfied that Commissioner Adam Silver had banned Sterling for life. Yes, they were happy to win the game. And yes, they hoped to end it Thursday night.
And yes, although they didn't say it, they hoped this would be the last time they have to answer Sterling-related questions.
From now on, it's back to the title chase for a team that could have shattered under the pressure of the last four days but instead came together with their fans, their city and, perhaps, their championship destiny.
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