Maybe the Los Angeles Clippers wouldn't have fallen behind early and eventually been buried by a spirited Golden State Warriors squad if Donald Sterling hadn't kidnapped the news cycle and contaminated his team.
Maybe Stephen Curry wouldn't have been able to capitalize on a dazed opponent with much more than basketball on its mind.
But Sterling (allegedly) said what he said. And the Clippers, already facing one difficult challenge, had to deal with a second on Sunday.
If Golden State's 118-97 thrashing in Game 4 is any indication, the Clips weren't ready to handle both.
Hard Enough on the Hardwood
Curry gave the Clippers all they could handle in Game 4, starting out the contest in one of the unconscious fits he typically reserves for pivotal third quarters. He buried five triples in the opening period, getting loose on screens and looking for his shot without hesitation.
When Curry gets rolling like he did in that first quarter, there's not a defensive scheme or personnel grouping on Earth that can slow him down. He'd go on to finish with a monster line.
And a signature sequence that encapsulated just how right everything went for him on the day.
In addition, Golden State finally went small, switching up the starting lineup in a risky attempt to create scoring chances for its guards. Mark Jackson, routinely buried for his unwillingness to make adjustments, made a big one.
And it worked.
The Dubs thrived in space, moving the ball and cutting through the middle of the suddenly wide-open interior. When threes weren't available, backdoor dives yielded scoring chances. And in transition, the Warriors' more athletic grouping paid dividends as well.
On top of Curry's inspired play and a new lineup, Golden State was motivated by a passionate crowd. Toss in the urgency of playing to preserve the job of a coach they roundly support, and it's no wonder the Dubs appeared hungrier and more focused than their opponents.
From all corners, Golden State attacked. It blitzed the bucket, getting eye-popping plays from guys who don't typically make the highlights for attacking the rim.
All the while, Chris Paul struggled to find a rhythm, likely bothered by his sore hamstring just as much as the constant strain of chasing Curry all over the floor.
That's a relatively abbreviated list of the issues the Clippers had to deal with in Game 4 in addition to the distraction of Sterling's comments. Just so we're on the same page, it should now be clear that L.A. had its hands full to begin with.
The Crisis of Leadership
Sterling's words weren't just a distraction; they were a disease that infected the Clippers. Their effects were far-reaching, their impact severe.
Think about it: The Clippers took the floor knowing there were huge factions of previously disinterested fans now actively rooting against them. And also imagine the mental complications of knowing they couldn't begrudge those fans their vitriol.
As always, a win for the Clippers means a win for Sterling. And nobody wants anything but the worst for the bigoted owner.
That's a painful reality to digest, and as admirably united as the Clippers appeared before the game, it's difficult to ignore the emotional impact of playing a game with the knowledge that your own personal success benefits a monster.
Doc Rivers is in an immensely difficult situation, both as an African-American employee working for Sterling and as a basketball coach tasked with motivating his players at a time when they'd be justified in not even wanting to play.
How is Rivers supposed to estimate and react to the emotional impact of many of his players realizing they work for a boss that doesn't respect them as human beings?
It's hard enough to stop guys like Curry with a clear mind and a fully focused scheme. Adding the legitimate moral and emotional complications the Clippers are facing doesn't make it any easier.
You could see it all over the faces of many Clippers on the bench as the clock wound down on their series-tying loss. They were upset at the result, but there was something more.
It seemed like they were thinking about issues beyond the game. And who could blame them?
Winning a playoff series is hard. Winning against a very good, motivated opponent is harder. Winning under these circumstances—when the players' hearts and heads are justifiably conflicted—might prove impossible.
Let's make sure not to minimize the effort of the Warriors. Draymond Green made one basket but influenced the game immensely with his toughness and smarts. Harrison Barnes hit huge shots in his 25 minutes. And David Lee played brilliantly as the lone big for much of the game, tallying 15 points , six rebounds and even a decent defensive stop or two.
Golden State took a game that was there to be had.
But as will be the case with everything related to the Clippers going forward, the dark cloud of Sterling's comments affected them. If they were going to rally, if they were going to use Sterling's words as motivation, they would have done it in Game 4.
Now, the hurt will linger. Now, the Clippers will lose the relative insulation of the road and head back to a home arena that might be emptier than usual. There will be more fan reaction in Los Angeles, and there will be more questions about how the team is going to deal with two villains: its owner and the Warriors.
In that environment, it might be even harder for the Clippers to cope.
L.A. still probably has the talent edge in this series. And it has two more home games on the schedule to the Warriors' one. The Clippers should still win this series.
But if they don't, it'll be impossible to avoid tying their failure to Sterling.
He mismanaged a franchise, creating a legacy of losing that lasted decades. Now, with his team fully capable of chasing a championship, he's become the biggest stumbling block to success in a different way.
There's some justice in all this, but not the kind anyone should be happy about.
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