By Flint Wheeler

Just as the Clippers stood together in silently protesting team owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks by turning their warmup shirts inside out prior to Game 4, they excelled as one, particularly down the stretch in the 126-121 victory.

Striped necktie loosened, shirt collar unbuttoned, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the undeniable leader of a team negotiating its way through turmoil, renewed hopes and empty tanks past 11 p.m. Saturday inside the Staples Center.

He commended his players on the Game 7 win over the Warriors, a contest that inched toward closure several times before swinging back open. Rivers counted three times he believed it was over, then explained his explosive celebration by the bench.


“They were almost just sitting there in shock,” Rivers said. “I wanted them to exhale for a second, because all we have is a second.”

Once derailed by longtime owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks, the Clippers team that protested silently in Game 4 excelled as one with the series on the line, vanquishing the Warriors with the 126-121 victory and advancing to face the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder next. It was not lost on Rivers the unique mettle test his team passed, having listened to Sterling’s “hateful feelings,” as NBA commissioner referred to Sterling’s tape-recorded words before banishing Sterling for life, and reflected on them. Rivers learned new dimensions to his roster by absorbing the situation in full.

“I needed to exhale, too,” Rivers said. “This was a hard week. Was it a week? It felt like two months. I just needed to smile.”

Clippers point guard Chris Paul, the crafty, charismatic liaison for Rivers on the floor, maintained that the team’s focus was solely on Game 7, no previous issues. From strings of text messages exchanged in the hours before the game to the ability of teammates to play off each other’s strengths, Paul (22 points; 14 assists) acknowledged the bond forged in difficult times. He gained headlines as the president of the National Basketball Players Association when the Sterling news first broke, but starred as the unflappable facilitator and finished on his own when necessary in a full-team effort. His best guess at how he knew to handle the chaos off the court was unplugging his phone for several days, leaving outsiders’ messages unanswered until the series was in hand.

Paul saved his energy for Game 7, probing for holes, pushing past defenders despite an ailing right hamstring and locating the likes of center DeAndre Jordan for an emphatic finish off an alley oop. It was a return to normalcy, if not full health, for Paul. It was also the closing effort, including a crucial 3-pointer from the top of the key in the fourth quarter, that the Clippers needed to escape the Warriors’ clutches as Stephen Curry continued to charge back into the final seconds.

“This was an NBA thing,” Curry said. “Ever NBA player felt emotions.”

It wasn’t always pretty, but the pairing of Warriors and Clippers proved to be a compelling matchup over the course of the seven games. Aside from the Sterling stigma, there was Curry knocking down seven 3-pointers in Game 4 and no love lost on either side, the disdain best exemplified by Warriors forward Jermaine O’Neal taking exception to Clippers forward Glen Davis’ “dirty play” in Game 6. There was a contest played without corporate sponsorships visible at the Staples Center and a Game 7 that featured actor Billy Crystal kissing television analyst Reggie Miller during a timeout.

“It stings right now,” Curry said. “We don’t feel like we have any regrets.”

Earlier in the night, Rivers referred to the clincher as “a game of freedom.” He noted that there could be a relaxed nature to his team should the players choose to look at the final steps that way. He also knew that closure did not always accompany the final score. In June 2010, his Celtics fell to the Lakers inside the Staples Center at the conclusion of a Game 7, losing the NBA title just like that.

“Thank God we don’t have to look up at those banners tonight,” Rivers said.

Few will forget the opening round series between the Warriors and Clippers for a number of reasons, but the Clippers were determined to pivot quickly. The players and coaches were given new reading assignments afterward as books featuring opposition research on the Thunder were left in their lockers. They will hear the same questions regarding Sterling in new ways moving forward, but the crux of the situation is that they have Paul and Rivers leading the way, free to carry the Clippers as far as they can go.

“I’m going to remember this game for a long time,” Rivers said.