LOS ANGELES -- Three wretched weeks, starting with an offensive audio tape, ended with an airborne water bottle. Less than four minutes remained in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals and the Clippers had just been called for their second straight questionable offensive foul. Only 48 hours had passed since head coach Doc Rivers said the Clippers were robbed in Oklahoma City on a botched replay and a questionable three-point shooting foul.
Rivers's words, and the image of the coach pounding on the table at his press conference, filled Staples Center. At the ensuing timeout, a fan behind the Clippers basket lobbed a water bottle toward referee Ed Malloy. Then another fan threw a drink in his direction.
The public address announcer pleaded with the crowd not to throw anything else on the court, and the demonstration subsided, replaced by a loud chant. Regardless, the Clippers season was doused, less by the officials than by themselves. For the second game in a row, the Clips blew a double-digit lead, failing to take advantage of a poor shooting night by Kevin Durant on Tuesday and Russell Westbrook on Thursday.
Chris Paul, who still has never reached a conference final, will have to carry the burden of this latest disappointment through another empty summer. Paul's three late mistakes lost Game 5 and he started slowly in Game 6, his team eventually falling 104-98.
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"I feel awful for him," Rivers said. "He's the spirit of our team and right now his spirit is broken."
He can rest on alibis galore. Even as late as Thursday afternoon, the Clippers heard reports that banished owner Donald Sterling was refusing to pay his $2.5 million fine and gearing up for a legal battle. The hope that the Clippers would be sold this summer, to a wealthy luminary like Magic Johnson or Oprah Winfrey, was diminished.
Still, the Clips stormed out to a 14-point first-quarter lead, and Rivers told an assistant, "I don't know if I like this. We better not hit a wall." They did, fried by the Thunder, and by their never-ending turn in the national news cycle.
"We've gone through a lot of stuff," Rivers said. "I don't think that was why we didn't win. I don't think we should use that as an excuse ... Sure, it played a part somewhat, it had to. But Oklahoma beat us fair and square."
After the game, Rivers saw players releasing emotion in the locker room, and tried to reassure them, "We're going to have our day. This is not the end. This is the beginning."
But Rivers also acknowledged that this summer will be messy for the Clippers and he's uncertain how they will lure free agents. He is encouraged by the fact that they won't need many reinforcements. With the emergence of defensive stopper DeAndre Jordan this season, and the maturation of power forward Blake Griffin, the core is intact. As long as the Clippers can replace the owner, they will be among the few most attractive destinations in the league for veterans willing to sign below-market contracts.
But for now, Oklahoma City and San Antonio still run the Western Conference. They will meet in the conference finals for the second time in three years, and though the Thunder beat the Spurs in 2012, the status of power forward Serge Ibaka could be a wild card. Ibaka left in the third quarter with an injured calf and did not return. At times, Durant looked alone on offense, given that Westbrook went without a field goal through the first two-and-a-half quarters. Durant struggled early also, making just four of his first 12 shots, but he sank eight of his last 11, sniffing a closeout. He finished with 39 points, 16 rebounds and a reminder for the conference finals. San Antonio may be playing better than Oklahoma City, but the Thunder still has the best player on the floor, capable of erasing so many other deficiencies.
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The Thunder also underlined in this series one area where they dominate almost everybody -- the free-throw line. They made twice as many free throws as the Clippers in Game 5 and more than twice as many in Game 6. They got some whistles, but they earned plenty, and converted the freebies.
"KD and Russ shot more than our whole team," Paul said. "It gets tough when they're putting them on the line every time down."
The Clippers alternated between the owner and the officiating, two topics that dominated their playoff experience. They will presumably be back in the fall -- Paul and Griffin declined to answer a question about how they would respond if Sterling still owns the club -- knowing that a season cannot be any stranger and cannot end any worse. What they endured should steel them for whatever they face.