In an alternate universe, the Los Angeles Clippers would have the opportunity to close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 Thursday night in Los Angeles. If not for costly turnovers, horrible execution, fouling a 3-point shooter, and a couple seriously egregious calls/non-calls, that scenario would be in play. Instead, through more adversity this postseason, the Clippers fight for their playoff lives and attempt to force Game 7 back in Oklahoma City.
Doc Rivers had a right to be upset after the Game 5 loss. His team blew a 7-point lead in the final minute of the game. That’s nearly impossible to do, and it’s happened in both Game 4 and Game 5 of this series. The Clippers had everything they wanted and couldn’t close the deal. It happens in sports. If the Clippers go on to lose this series, the Game 5 meltdown will be forever remembered, just as the Game 5 of the 2002 Lakers-Kings series in remembered.
While Doc and some of the other players stayed on the court after Game 5 to yell at the refs, it felt like there is something more at stake between the Thunder and Clippers. You could hear the desperation in Doc’s voice, as he yelled “That’s our ball!” over and over again. That emotion answered a question I’d been asking since the whole Donald Sterling issue began: This is more than basketball.
In the first round against Golden State, I waited and waited for the Clippers to have that breakout performance. It never happened. Yes, L.A. won Game 7, but Games 4, 5, and 6 of the first round never featured the emotion the Clippers showed after they were homered in Game 5 of the OKC series.
No one knows how this situation with Donald Sterling is going to play out. I’m not a lawyer and have a very little understanding of the process the NBA will go through to remove Sterling as an owner. I’ve read all the media reports, like everyone else, and I know Sterling won’t go down without a fight, which will stretch this situation out for years.
What, then, happens to the Clippers? Who’s going to be calling the shots? Will Doc Rivers want to hang around? Are free agents going to choose the Clippers when the legal situation is a distraction and a mess? Are players like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin going to finish their careers with the Clippers?
Up until about two weeks ago, those questions weren’t on the table. Now, there’s too much uncertainty to even make an educated guess at what will happen. The NBA is doing all they can to make sure the Clippers have the resources and management to stay afloat, but instead of making personnel decisions, looking ahead to the future of the franchise, everyone is wondering what is going to happen this summer. I hope Rivers and the team stay together. I hope they’re able to sign other free agents to make their team better. But, you never know what is going to happen.
To me, that’s why there was so much frustration with Rivers after the game. That’s the reason Chris Paul looked so utterly depressed after the game. Yes, it was also years of never having been in that situation, been that close to having control of actually reaching the conference finals. That’s a huge part of it, but it’s also about the uncertainty of ever having this chance again to go up 3-2 in the series, heading back home for Game 6. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Paul isn’t getting any younger, and a possible chance at the NBA Finals this season just became way, way, way slimmer.
The major distractions created by the Sterling situation almost through off the Clippers playoff run, they’ve persevered through the ups and downs, through the focus issues. If there is anything certain about the Sterling situation, it’s this: it can wait until the season is over.
The only way to delay the inevitable media firestorm and frenzied offseason is by winning games and staying alive in the playoffs. Right now, the Clippers have basketball. They can pour their heart, soul, and body into basketball. When basketball is over, it’s back to reality, and the reality is that this summer is going to be a nightmare for the players and coaches. With every new turn to the story, they’ll all get harassed by the media for interviews. Anything say or don’t say, do or don’t do will be analyzed by pundits, talking heads, and fans everywhere. This process is just getting started. When the time comes, it’s not going to be fun to be a member of the Clippers team or anywhere near that situation.
As a fan with an undying hatred of the Thunder, Game 5 sucked for so many reasons, but the main reason was that I was sick of seeing the Clippers get screwed. What do they need to do to catch a break? I know they’re not the most likable group of players and coaches, but still. The fix was in on that game. Everyone knows it.
The battle for a birth in the Western Conference Finals may be over for the Clippers, but the war off-the-court is just beginning.