LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Clippers had already absorbed the worst of what was to come from Donald Sterling's latest debacle. They'd taken their symbolic stand before Game 4, suffered through a poor performance during it and sat through question after question regarding their reviled owner's racially charged comments.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver fought back on Tuesday afternoon by banning Sterling from all league-related functions for life and slapping him with a $2.5 million fine. The Clippers took their own redemptive turn hours later by taking down the Golden State Warriors in Game 5, 113-103, in front of an emotional home crowd at the Staples Center.
"They were awesome," Doc Rivers said in praise of his team's fans at his postgame press conference. "I mean, that's as good as I've ever seen them. They're unbelievable."
So, too, was DeAndre Jordan. The shot-swatting center led all participants with 25 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks in his 38 minutes of play. When the Warriors resorted to "hacking" late in the game, Jordan responded by hitting 4-of-6 at the free-throw line, and finished the night a respectable 9-of-17 from the stripe.
This, after going scoreless in L.A.'s 118-97 no-show in Game 4.
"I thought DJ and a bunch of them, they just got caught up in it up in Golden State," Rivers said in reflecting on Jordan's bounce-back performance. "I mean, they had raw emotions going into that game, and we just didn't handle it very well."
Indeed, Jordan's comeback game was emblematic of L.A.'s team-wide turnaround. Two nights after allowing the Warriors to shoot 55.4 percent from the floor, the Clippers held their bitter rivals to a more manageable 47.1 percent on field-goal attempts. Their clamps were particularly tight on Stephen Curry, who followed up his 33-point explosion in Game 4 by scoring a modest 17 points and notching nearly as many turnovers (eight) as shot attempts (10).
Chris Paul had plenty to do with that. Of his five steals, four came at Curry's expense.
"Probably one of the most emotional games I've ever played in my life," said Paul after the game (via Clippers blogger JG). "Can't say thank you enough to our fans. This was one of the most humbling things any of us have ever been a part of."
Paul knows a thing or two about emotional games. As a high school senior, Paul put up a personal-best 61 points the day after his grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, was murdered at the age of 61.
The All-Star point guard fell well short of 61 this time around, though his 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists—to go along with that tenacious defense on Curry—were more than enough to spring the Clippers to victory.
Blake Griffin didn't have his finest night, either. Fouls proved problematic, just as they did in Game 1, though he came up big when it mattered most. Griffin scored eight of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back midrange jumpers that pushed L.A.'s lead back to nine points halfway through the frame.
"We have distractions all the time but the magnitude of this was crazy," Griffin said (via Bleacher Report's Chris Trenchard). "When something like this happens, you spend emotional energy trying to convince yourself it's not a distraction."
As good as Griffin was down the stretch, Jamal Crawford was even better. Crawford came alive for 11 points in the final frame, and even managed to get up for a rare dunk in the closing minutes of the third.
L.A.'s effort was truly one of a team, which, as ESPN.com's J.A. Adande noted, is how the Clippers got and will get through the remainder of the Donald Sterling era with their aspirations intact.
"Together, they got through the crisis," Adande wrote. "They played a game whose very tipoff was in doubt, with players around the league mobilizing for a shutdown if their concerns weren't met by Silver. And they prevailed."
As for the Warriors, they did well to battle the Clippers inside with their "small ball" lineup. Golden State actually finished ahead in rebounds (42-41) and points in the paint (50-40), despite starting the undersized Draymond Green (10 points, 11 boards) in the middle and watching David Lee (18 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) struggle with foul trouble all night.
But the Dubs couldn't quite overcome some crucial mistakes in crunch time. Golden State turned it over twice in a three-possession span with less than four minutes to go, each yielding scores on L.A.'s end.
Nor could the Warriors persevere through a 41-19 disparity in free-throw attempts, even with so many of the Clippers' tries coming on account of Mark Jackson's own tactics.
Then again, L.A.'s advantage in emotional energy might've been enough to carry the day anyway. After all they'd been through, the Clippers played like a team that relished the opportunity to get away from the distractions and take out their frustrations by doing what they do best and do normally: Playing basketball.
That being said, this win, however pivotal, didn't settle anything for the Clippers. They still have to take one more to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals, with a trip to Oakland on tap for Thursday. Once that's through, L.A. will have to worry about either the talented Oklahoma City Thunder or (more likely) the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies, who ousted the Clippers from last year's playoffs.
Likewise, the Sterling situation remains far from resolved. He may not be allowed to so much as set foot at another Clippers game in his life, but the team remains his. Even if the league's 29 other owners vote to strip Sterling of ownership at Adam Silver's behest—which they likely will—there's little doubt that Sterling, never one to shy away from a legal battle, will fight tooth-and-nail to keep the team, which he's had in his possession since 1981.
For one day, at least, all felt well with Clipper Nation. Their embattled owner was nowhere in sight. His estranged wife, Shelly, spent the evening in a luxury suite, far away from her usual courtside spot.
And far from the Clippers themselves, who left behind yesterday's darkness for what they can only hope will be a brighter tomorrow.
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