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Clippers reassert their identity in Game 7 win over the Warriors

Photo: John W. McDonough/SI

Chris Paul (3) finished Game 7 with 22 points and 14 assists, captaining the Clippers ship to a win.

LOS ANGELES -- At the end of a very long week, Blake Griffin did a push-up. He had just spun past Draymond Green, absorbed a forearm to the chest from Harrison Barnes and tossed an improbable shot over his whiplashed head. As the ball spilled through the net, Griffin fell to the floor, only he never actually landed. Like an oversized gymnast, he planted his hands on the hardwood and sprung to his feet, the most acrobatic part of an otherworldly play. Griffin's no-look layup with 56 seconds left in the fourth quarter was a momentous basket and an appropriate metaphor. The Clippers, who have taken a vicious combination of blows over the past seven days, still stand.

They beat the Warriors in Game 7 on Saturday night, 126-121, and when it was over Griffin clapped for the home crowd. Jamal Crawford hugged Billy Crystal. Doc Rivers said he was more excited than after the 2008 championship in Boston. He was presumably joking.

"This was a hard week," Rivers said. "Was it a week? It feels like a month. I just needed to smile and laugh and be proud of something -- and I was very proud of my players." Rivers called off practice Friday after about 30 minutes and sent the team home because he thought they appeared drained. That night, the Clippers sent a flurry of group texts to each other while watching the Blazers and Rockets.

"Guys were texting, 'This can't be over,'" Chris Paul said. "It's not time for it to be over."

Then they gave up 64 points and nine threes in the first half. They trailed by eight points. They still lagged at the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

"You felt it in timeouts, though" Paul said. "It wasn't time for it to be over." He threw a lob to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk. J.J. Redick threw a lob to Griffin for a dunk. Griffin threw a lob to Jordan for another dunk. Much about the Clippers has changed over the two-and-a-half years since Paul arrived, but in the final minutes of the first round, they rediscovered their original identity. This remains Lob City, a rollicking metropolis governed by Paul, Griffin and Jordan, not Donald Sterling.

In the locker room afterward, Clippers forward Matt Barnes told his teammates, "Thank you for trusting each other." They knew what he meant. When they move the ball, believing in Griffin or Jordan to rise and grab it, they are the most potent attack in the NBA. They didn't beat the Warriors because of the tight-fisted defense Rivers brought from Boston. No, they advanced because they score in frenzies, much like their opponent in the Western Conference semifinals. Before the Clippers left Staples Center on Saturday night, players had already been handed notebooks briefing them on Oklahoma City.

"I asked them to go home and read tonight," Rivers said. "That's their homework."

Griffin, an Oklahoma City native, said his mother will be ready with strawberry cake for the team when they land Sunday. They face the Thunder in Game 1 on Monday night. They still don't know whether the events of the past week will eventually sap them or steel them.

"There's not really a team that's gone through this," Griffin said. "I remember Saturday morning when everything hit you could see certain guys who were really emotional about the situation. This was the first day and it got a lot bigger. It grew with each day -- and each hour, honestly. It wore on guys. We tried to do the thing where, 'Let's put this off to the side,' but that's impossible."

Staples Center looked markedly different in Game 7 than Game 5. Black outfits worn by team employees were swapped for red. Fabric that covered advertisements around the arena was removed. Anti-Sterling T-shirts and signs were not shown on the Jumbotron. The action was so intense it finally overshadowed everything owner.

"It's been exhausting," Paul said. "But it was all about basketball tonight. Everything else was in the past."

So completed a week in which the world was introduced to Donald Sterling, Adam Silver and someone named V. Stiviano. A week that began with a racist audiotape, a swift investigation, and a dramatic pile of discarded warm-ups at Oracle Arena; continued with the exodus of advertisers, the protests of players and the suggestions of a boycott; climaxed with the overthrow of an owner, the coronation of a commissioner, and the celebration at City Hall of a franchise restored by coup.

But before Oprah Winfrey and Floyd Mayweather and Magic Johnson could place their bids, there was the Barbara Walters interview with Stiviano, the widespread speculation that Sterling will sue, and the appearance of his wife, Shelley, in a luxury suite for Game 7.

"It could go down as the toughest moment in league history," said Warriors coach Mark Jackson, never mind that he may be fired after this series, a subplot that barely even registered in the national consciousness. There was far more concern for Rivers.

"I think we're good, I really do," Rivers said Saturday evening, less than a week after acknowledging that he might not return with Sterling as owner. Rivers busied himself in recent days counseling tearful staffers, discussing the search for a new CEO and, oh yeah, prepping the Clippers for a series that defined their season.

"Because of the week I'm going to remember this game for a long time," Rivers said. "I just thought we really needed to win the game."

SI Now: Sterling scandal rallies Clippers for title run
On Wednesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated NBA producer Matt Dollinger discusses the Los Angeles Clippers facing adversity and how the scandal has helped the team become stronger title contenders.

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