By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
OAKLAND — By the end — of the game, of the trip they unfortunately will never forget, of the questions to Barack Obama in Malaysia — the worst thing of all was waiting for the Clippers.
The reality that it was not the end.
Sunday actually marked the earliest days of the Donald T. Sterling saga, not the chance to put it behind them. The controversy over racist remarks attributed to Sterling isn’t going away, what has suddenly become an entirely unpredictable future for a roster that once seemed locked up isn’t going away and, oh, by the way, the Warriors aren’t going away either.
The Clippers who pulled away from Oracle Arena for the bus ride to the airport and the hour flight back to Los Angeles were a fragile group, a head coach angry to the point of getting choked up on the podium at the postgame news conference and a roster with raw, fragile emotions. They hadn’t been that way during the regular season, showing a commendable fortitude then, but nothing could prepare players for the odorous comments from the head of the franchise that forced them Saturday to briefly discuss the unimaginable of boycotting the game Sunday.
Then came the deluge from outside the team of suggested responses, with friends and relatives calling and texting. There was some push to make a moral stand on behalf of something greater than a basketball game. Players had done nothing wrong and felt under siege and ultimately decided to show their disgust by piling some of their sweats at mid-court during pregame warmups, turn their shooting shirts inside out to keep the “Clippers” out of view. They wore black socks, wrist bands and arm bands, even though coach Doc Rivers didn’t like the gesture.
It was about two of the most surreal days, from Friday night when the audio tapes acquired by TMZ became public until Sunday afternoon as the Warriors finished off the 118-97 victory to even the first-round series at 2-2, in NBA history. Unless there have been many other times when the president of the United States was standing next to the prime minister of Malaysia during a press conference in Malaysia and pivoting from answering a question on Russia-Ukraine right into one about the owner of a basketball team an ocean away.
“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t do really have to do anything,” Obama said. “You just let them talk.” And: “I have confidence that the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, a good man, will address this.”
There certainly wasn’t any refuge on the court. The Warriors, even with coach Mark Jackson saying his team had been distracted by the unprecedented situation, were sharper and more aggressive. Stephen Curry made five of seven 3-pointers in the first quarter, Golden State built a 20-point lead in the period, David Lee delivered on his promise to step up, and the lineup change Jackson said Friday he was considering became a small-ball spark of Draymond Green at power forward and Lee at center in place of Jermaine O’Neal.
“They did the things that we wanted to do,” Griffin said.
In the moment, it was a bad afternoon and a historically bad couple days, with the Clippers looking like a team drained of its passion and the play of the Warriors doing more to determine the outcome of Game 4 than the words of Sterling. In the big picture, though, in the long-term thinking of a team rightly thinking about playing in June, Sunday made it clear that getting through this is going to take time. Maybe even a lot of time, if they have that much left on the basketball calendar.
“I don’t know,” Rivers said when asked about an emotional timetable. “We’re going home now. Usually that would mean we’re going to our safe haven, and I don’t even know if that’s true, to be honest. But I know I can get to them and I know they want to do right. And like I told them, the game’s on me. My fault. It’s my job. I gotta do a better job getting these guys ready to play basketball. And if it’s because of the other thing, it’s still my fault. It really is. I’m the coach and my job is to get my players ready to play. And I didn’t do my job.”
This is unchartered desert for experienced coaches too. No group has ever gone through this, during a 2-1 playoff series that just became 2-2, with hiding the name of their own team during warmups, amid proposals they stage a sit-in Sunday or that L.A. fans boycott Tuesday at home. Maybe as Air Force One passes overhead.
Surreal, all right. And worse yet for the Clippers, far from over. There are still the distractions ahead in Game 5, possibly with fans showing their displeasure toward Sterling by wearing black, and the punishment that is expected to be handed down within days, all in a 2-2 series against an underdog that has already won at Staples Center. Getting through this is just getting started.