By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES — Coach Doc Rivers warned his players in advance, flat out told them before the postseason started to brace for inevitable adversity because the Clippers would face unexpected challenges. He could not have imagined the threat would come from the inside and land on the doorstep ticking. But he knew from the experience of deep runs with Boston there would be something at some point.
Then the Donald Sterling scandal hit, the Warriors struck and the Chris Paul hamstring injury impacted, all the way until Saturday at 10:45 p.m. on the Staples Center digital clock. That’s when the Clippers had finally survived the first round that was so much more than a first round. That’s when they finished the 126-121 victory as a Game 7 instant classic to advance to play the Thunder beginning Monday in Oklahoma City.
This is how it will have to be, maybe for now and maybe for the rest of the season after one of the most bizarre series in league history. They got this far, to the Western Conference semifinals, with seven games that were far more gritty than Lob City glamorous, overcoming typical basketball-related concerns along the lines of foul troubles for Blake Griffin and the troublesome right leg of Paul, but mostly overcoming the owner as a human time bomb.
The Clippers got through it. It wasn’t overwhelming, requiring seven games to beat an opponent missing its second- or third-best player with Andrew Bogut lost the entire time to injury, and it wasn’t always fun. But it was over.
“This was a hard week,” Rivers said. “Was it a week? I don’t even know. It felt like two months.”
Maybe even longer to the carryover Clippers, who have been waiting for a chance to live down the 2013 playoffs that started with two wins over Memphis and was immediately followed by four consecutive losses. A first-round loss then and the alarming possibility of another now, especially trailing by three points with nine minutes remaining Saturday night and rarely leading by more than five points the final six minutes.
“I just thought this team really needed the game,” said Rivers, in his first season as coach. “Honestly, I just wanted us to win the game. Not because of not winning last year. I just thought with all this stuff, this team just needed this win. We grinded. They [the Warriors] played great. Mark Jackson is a terrific coach. I want to start with that. They had injuries, he got his guys to compete. I thought out of timeouts they were very difficult to defend. … Through all that, I thought that our guys fought the adversity. They went through it. I thought it drained them and they found enough energy to find a way to win a game.
“I think Matt Barnes, in one word, said it was trust. After we walked in the locker room, he said, ‘Guys, thank you for trusting each other.’ I think you have to go through adversity to learn how to trust each other. We went on that one little stretch where we stopped moving the ball offensively, and down the stretch the ball was moving so fast that they [the Warriors] couldn’t find the open guy and we had dunks and layups and open threes. Chris was on fire. We come out of a timeout, run a play for J.J. [Redick] and he trusts and gets the ball. I thought that really helped our team.”
This was something to be at once endured and enjoyed. A loss Thursday in Oakland that sent the series to L.A. for a deciding Game 7. Such an unproductive film session and light practice Thursday that Rivers sent players home to clear their heads — the second time he’d done that in the series. And then the back and forth of an incredible Saturday night inside Staples Center and the cauldron of emotions for loud fans and scrapping teams.
“Our trust is real,” Jamal Crawford said after scoring 22 points off the bench. “It’s easy to all be together when things are going great. But when there’s adversity and you still hang together and get even closer, I think that’s special.”
Survival felt good. The Clippers had outlasted the Warriors and overcome the controversy surrounding their owner to reach the second round and maybe put a little more distance on the Sterling saga. The Clippers had handled the adversity just well enough. This is how it will have to be for a while.