LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers did not leave the Celtics, move across the country, and jeopardize a championship legacy that he spent a decade building so he could lose in the first round to an unbalanced upstart missing its best big man. Rivers envisioned a title in L.A., with Chris Paul handling the ball, Blake Griffin stuffing it, DeAndre Jordan swatting it. He coaxed the Clippers to a franchise-record 57 wins, with Griffin becoming a top-five player and Jordan a top-three rim protector, as evidenced by the Defensive Player of the Year poll released Monday. Rivers has enhanced the Clippers in subtle ways, with the hope they'd also improve in the most significant way, advancing through the playoffs.
Rivers took the Clippers Game 1 loss hard, citing the foul trouble that limited Griffin to 19 minutes, the defensive lapses, the lack of ball movement and finally the squandered possessions down the stretch. "I hope it's my time," he said Monday evening, "but I swear I'm not going to make a shot tonight." He sounded, though, as if he might be tempted. Rivers's public persona is genial and self-deprecating, but anyone who remembers his playing career knows that a feisty competitor lies within. There's a reason he's been able to survive battles with Rajon Rondo and Paul, equally strong-willed floor generals.
With 5 minutes left in the first half, and L.A. already winning by 19 points, Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal wandered toward the Clipper bench. It was not O'Neal's first stroll in that direction. During a game in March, O'Neal also walked toward the Clipper bench while jawing with Griffin, and confronted him afterward outside the locker room. The two were quickly separated, but the exchange was remembered. O'Neal, a 17-year veteran who played for Rivers in Boston, was supposed to back up Andrew Bogut in this series. But Bogut broke a rib last week, thrusting O'Neal into the starting lineup, and he contributed greatly to the Game 1 win. Asked about his impact, Rivers recalled how O'Neal shot 20.5 percent for Miami in the 2010 playoffs and was unable to provide any offense for the Celtics in '10-11. "I guess he went to Germany with Kobe," Rivers cracked.
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A humorous sound bite took on a more serious tone as O'Neal ventured closer to the Clipper bench and Rivers shouted in his direction. They engaged in an extended argument, drawing a double technical foul, though Rivers seemed to do most of the talking. He was right that he didn't make any shots Monday night, but he clearly took a couple. "Me and Jermaine are very close, but not tonight, not during the game," Rivers said. "We were born on the same day, two Libras, two stubborn fools." Rivers didn't need to motivate the Clippers. They were inspired enough. In a rare first-round blowout, they scored 105 points through three quarters, opening up a 32-point lead, and sending their starters to the bench for good. The 138-98 final score was the largest margin of victory in the club's playoff history, with the most points in the club's playoff history.
Referees may be the only ones who can halt Griffin in this series. He showed a postseason audience what he has demonstrated for the past six months, scoring 35 points through three quarters and sinking 13 of 17 shots on a diverse assortment of dunks and mid-range jumpers. Almost as important, he didn't pick up a single foul, and avoided a technical when he jabbered again with O'Neal. These teams, which won't even attend pre-game chapel service together, dislike each other so intensely that the bench guys also jostled in the fourth quarter after Golden State's Marreese Speights threw a left forearm at Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
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In a wrestling match, the Warriors cannot beat the Clippers without Bogut. They need to turn games into three-point shootouts and hope Curry recaptures his postseason heat. The Clippers allowed the lowest three-point field goal percentage in the league this season, but struggled defending Curry the entire season. In the first two games of this series, however, the Clippers have hounded Curry on the perimeter by trapping him out of every pick-and-roll. He's made only 3 of 13 threes and shot under 50 percent overall. He became frustrated enough Monday that he chucked his mouthpiece after a questionable no-call. "I've got to make plays," Curry said. "I can't let them take me out of the game." Golden State coach Mark Jackson remains content with Curry in a distribution role, but eventually the Warriors need him to fire more than his mouthpiece, with accuracy.
The only problem for the Clippers in Game 2 was more like a potential problem, involving Paul's right hamstring, which he tweaked Saturday. Paul underwent extensive treatment in the 48 hours between games and said the hamstring was not a concern. Rivers didn't sound quite as convinced. Paul scored 12 points and handed out 10 assists, but he appeared to favor the leg at times. The Clippers were able to rest him in the fourth quarter, while their reserves mopped up the Warriors' mess.
Afterward, Rivers was relieved but hardly satisfied, still bemoaning the fruitless play he drew up at the end of Game 1. The Clippers cannot erase what happened. But with a bit of emotion and a lot of offense, they evened it up.