LOS ANGELES — The night began as most NBA reunions do, a headliner returning to the city he spurned, greeted by a blend of cheers and boos, a video montage, a grudging ovation. Chris Paul waved to the crowd. Over six seasons, he legitimized the Clippers for the first time in their history. No longer were they a punch line. They were a real franchise. For anybody under the age of 21, the Clips are the team of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, not Danny Manning and Michael Olowokandi.
Paul and Griffin were successful coworkers, not close friends. When Paul left for Houston, he called Griffin to share the news, but after that they drifted apart. Paul kept in better touch with other Clippers, including DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Johnson. Paul and Griffin were reacquainted Monday, and for the first 44 minutes, the summit was uneventful. Then, with 3:42 left in the fourth quarter, Johnson blocked a layup by Rockets guard Eric Gordon that probably should have been called goaltending.
The Houston bench erupted, and as the Clippers ran back down-court, Griffin bumped head coach Mike D’Antoni. On that same possession, Griffin drove against Paul and made a layup, drawing a foul in the process. The Rockets, already irate over the no–call goaltend and the bump, argued that the foul should have been on the floor. Paul appeared more upset with referee Michael Smith than he was with Griffin, but the two players also jawed back and forth. Houston forward Trevor Ariza separated them. Ariza and Paul go back eight years, to New Orleans, and they’ve stayed tight ever since. Paul was at Ariza’s bachelor party in Houston this summer and his wedding in Dana Point. He signed with the Rockets mainly because he wanted to play with James Harden, but Ariza was a major draw.
A little more than two minutes after the first altercation, with the game in hand for the Clippers, Griffin dribbled around Ariza near halfcourt. Ariza reached out with his left hand and ripped one of Griffin’s tights. When Griffin reached the paint, he planted a shoulder into Paul, who stumbled backward. Griffin made the free throw with a piece of his white tights dangling from beneath his shorts.
Only 72 seconds remained, but in some ways, the night was just beginning. Griffin spiked a ball off Gordon’s back while falling out of bounds, to retain possession, and then riled the Staples Center crowd. The Clippers' bench, particularly injured point guards Austin Rivers and Patrick Beverley, beamed at the image of their mild-mannered leader waving his arms. This was not just a reunion for Paul. It was also a revenge game for Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker, who came to Los Angeles in the June blockbuster. The Rockets believed the Clippers were celebrating a 113-102 win in mid-January as if it were a playoff series.
Ariza was engaging in simultaneous shouting matches near the home bench, one with Griffin and another with Rivers. Ariza was ejected, as was Griffin, who had already received a technical foul for trading expletives with D’Antoni after the bump. “He hit me,” D’Antoni said. “I didn’t appreciate it.” Griffin and Ariza left down opposite tunnels, to their respective locker rooms, Griffin tossing his jersey into the stands.
A hallway runs between the Clippers locker room and the visitors locker room, where players from opposing teams often see each other and catch up. According to a Rockets source, Ariza was waiting on Griffin, and when the game ended he charged from the hallway into the Clips locker room. When Rivers spotted Ariza near the entrance, according to the source, he said: “Let his b----- a-- come in.” Ariza then turned his attention to Rivers.
ESPN reported that Ariza was flanked by three teammates—Harden, Paul and Gerald Green—but their purpose was unclear. “They were holding Trevor back,” the source said. Security was summoned and no punches were thrown, unless you count the jab Paul landed in his post-game interview, when he praised Williams and suggested the Clippers run their offense through the quick-trigger guard. He didn’t mention Griffin or the hallway. Meanwhile, Beverley tweeted: “It’s a different culture in LA. No more soft s--- here!!!!!”
“We’re honoring Martin Luther King Day,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re non-violent….Let’s put it like this: our team was in our locker room. That’s all I’ll say. I’ll let you do the rest of the investigation. I will say their entire team was not in their locker room. You’re going to have to figure it out from there.”
The NBA will likely launch its own fact-finding mission Tuesday.