OAKLAND -- They took their warm-up jackets off and dropped them on the floor at center court, at once the perfect symbol of protest and an ominous sign of what was to come. As hard as they tried, the Clippers were not the Clippers on Sunday afternoon against the Golden State Warriors. They were empty uniforms.
And who could blame them? For the previous 36 hours they had been thinking about, answering questions about, talking among themselves about their boss, owner Donald Sterling, and the horrible, racist things he said in a recorded conversation with his girlfriend. It left them in an impossible position. They wanted to play through it, perform their best for themselves and for each other, but how could they forget they would also doing it in service of a owner who looked down on people of color? The story had kept gaining momentum, with President Obama even weighing in, and with some observers calling on them to boycott the game. Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson, serving as an advisor to the Players Association, had been called in to consult with them. It was personal and political and emotionally draining. How, in the face of everything that was happening, were they supposed to summon the kind of focus they needed to win a playoff game against a desperate team on the road?
In the end, the Clippers couldn't. They couldn't track Golden State's Stephen Curry (33 points) on defense with the tenacity of earlier games. They couldn't dominate the smaller Warriors around the basket the way they had previously in the series. They couldn't do much of anything to stop Golden State from cruising to a 118-97 victory that tied the first-round series at two games each. Usually the talk of "distractions" in sports is just a cliché, but in this case the phenomenon could not have been more real. In fact, it wasn't enough to say the Clippers were distracted. They looked shaken, confused, depressed. "Maybe our focus wasn't in the right place," guard JJ Redick said. "That might be the easiest way to say it."
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That's about all they would admit to. The players were tight-lipped all day. They closed the locker room and declined to speak to reporters before the game and tried to limit the discussion to basketball-related questions afterward. But they spoke in symbols with the warm-up jackets, which they removed to reveal that they had turned the long-sleeved red shirts over their jerseys inside out so that the word "Clippers" could not be seen. They weren't playing for Sterling's franchise, they were playing for each other. The players also wore black armbands and socks. "A sign of unity," Redick said.
Also, perhaps, a sign of trouble, in terms of their focus. "I wasn't thrilled about it," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who didn't voice that opinion to his players. "But if that's what they want to do, that's what they want to do." But it was Rivers who was the most candid about the Sterling situation. He acknowledged that he was "somewhat" aware of the allegations of racism Sterling had faced in the past, but that it wasn't a factor when he took the Clippers job last summer. "I didn't know a lot about it," he said. "Probably should have."
The same is probably true of many NBA players and coaches. Despite the occasional media reports over the years, Sterling's racial attitudes mostly an underground story. But that was before his words were recorded, and mostly in the days before social media. There is little chance that NBA personnel will ignore Sterling's reputation in the future. Warriors coach Mark Jackson said he wouldn't accept a job with the Clippers knowing what he knows now.
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As for Rivers, when asked if he would need certain assurances from Sterling or the franchise in order to return next season, he said he didn't know. His mind was more focused on his team's present than his own future. Rivers knew there was a chance that his team might not be able to cut through the jumble of emotions they had been feeling in time to deal with the Warriors. Before the game he admitted that he wasn't sure about his team's psyche. "There will be certain players who will be great, and there will be certain players who will have been thinking about this all night and they can't function," he said. "My job will be to try to figure out who's functioning and who's not. I wish I could tell you (which will be which.) I just don't know."
It turned out that with the possible exception of Jamal Crawford (26 points), none of the Clippers functioned very well. Curry hit five straight threes in the first quarter that ended with the Warriors leading 39-24, and really, the rest of the day wasn't about basketball at all. Several reporters skipped most of the third quarter in order to stay at the press conference Johnson was holding at the arena in which outlined the union's objectives in regard to Sterling. Among them, the players want the Clippers owner to be prohibited from attending any games for the rest of the postseason, and they want a full accounting from commissioner Adam Silver of the previous allegations of racism against Sterling, along with an explanation of why the league never sanctioned him in any of those instances. "The players will not be silent on this issue," Johnson said.
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But on Sunday, the Clippers mostly were, as they tried to downplay the Sterling effect on their performance -- "Just like every other game," said forward Blake Griffin. "It really was." -- but everyone knew the truth. "I'm not going to deny that we had other stuff," Rivers said. "I just believe when the game starts, nobody cares anymore."
The Warriors cared enough that players from the two teams discussed doing some sort of joint protest before the game, but ultimately decided against it. "It's not just the Clippers who were affected by this," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "Everyone in the league was affected."
But it is the Clippers who paid the price on Sunday, and the question is, how much more of a price will they pay in basketball games? Sterling has cast a pall over what was shaping up as a fun, entertaining series, and in the process, he may have robbed his team of its chance to win a championship. Instead of being encouraged by the knowledge that the Clippers were returning home to Los Angeles for Game 5, Clips point guard Chris Paul was apprehensive, especially since the Clippers don't yet know whether Sterling will be in attendance.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about what it is going to be like," Paul said. "Our fans have been amazing all season long, and obviously I hope that it will be the same." But sadly, the one thing that seems certain for the Clippers is that for the forseeable future, nothing will be quite the same.