BILL PLASCHKE

Clippers are not riven by distraction

They win a series over the Golden State Warriors that could have finished them but instead defines them.

Their owner was thrown out of the league, their organization is buried in chaos, yet the Clippers play on.

They were humiliated by hate, distracted by protests, exhausted by stress, yet the Clippers play on.

It was a series that could have finished them. It was, instead, a series that has defined them.

Exactly one week after their world was rocked by the release of an audio recording containing racially charged comments by owner Donald Sterling, the Clippers finished their fight through the sludge Saturday with a 126-121 victory over the Golden State Warriors in the deciding Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

A series of seething turmoil ended in screaming relief. A series mired in pain ended in joy. The gestures of Doc Rivers, the rarely celebratory coach who calmly led his team through the continuous controversy, spoke volumes in the final seconds with a fist-pumping dance down the sidelines.

“I needed to exhale ... this was a hard week, it feels like two months,’’ Rivers said afterward. “I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer and be proud of something. And I was very proud of this team.’’

The Clippers' resilience began the night before the game, when the players began texting each other with inspirational messages.

“Guys were texting like, 'No, this can’t be over, it’s not our time to be over,' ’’ Paul said.

Their strength continued on the court after they fell behind by a dozen during the first half, when the Warriors were shooting nearly 60 percent. Golden State was making shots from every corner and taunting with both hands. The Clippers were chasing and gasping. The hundreds of Warriors fans that had infiltrated Staples Center were making the noise of thousands.

In the Clippers' huddles, during their timeouts, the players kept referring to the words of those texts.

“We just felt it,’’ said Paul. “It’s not time for our season to be over.’’

Midway through the third quarter, that belief covered the court. A DeAndre Jordan block and a couple of Paul jumpers got the Clippers started, and here they came, bringing the roaring red-shirted fans to their feet with seemingly every streak down the court. J.J. Redick splashed. Blake Griffin bulled. Stephen Curry missed and missed.

The Clippers outscored the Warriors, 31-20, in the quarter, and during the break, the loudspeakers appropriately blared the song with the words, "The ceiling can’t hold us.’’

Said Paul: “If we were going to go down, we were going to go down swinging.’’

Not the Warriors, not the pressure, not even that darkened arena ceiling could hold them in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers came back with swarming defense and daring offense, winning the game in the final two minutes on several plays Clippers fans will be talking about all summer.

There was the blocked shot by Jordan followed by an ally-oop dunk by Griffin on a pass from Redick. There was the dunked follow by Jordan. Then there was the flailing, falling, spinning layup by Griffin.

Seven Clippers scored in that fourth quarter. Five Clippers had assists. Their teamwork mirrored their behavior off the court during the previous week. The team’s new "We Are One" motto became more than just a slogan.

“Through this whole thing, we were a team,’’ said Rivers. “If there’s a message there, if you thought about it, we all had the same voice, one voice, everybody, we echoed, we said the same thing.”

Afterward, those voices were mostly relieved laughter, and while some may say they only won a series they were supposed to win against a lower-seeded and outmanned Warriors team, the truth is that they won a series they had every reason to lose.

Sterling has been banned from the NBA, nobody knows who’s in charge,  Rivers even had to give a pep talk to the tearful front office on Friday, yet the Clippers play on.

CHICAGO
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