OAKLAND — Before his team’s much-anticipated Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, just hours after a more complete recording alleging to contain team owner Donald Sterling’s inflammatory and racist comments was released, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers spoke to the media about how it affected the team. Rivers used some variation of "I don’t know" or "no idea" some 15 times during the course of his press conference, but he also said his fear was that the Clippers would start out well and then "run out of gas emotionally."
After a lackluster 118-97 loss in Oakland that wasn’t even as close as the score differential might indicate, it’s clear the Clippers’ emotional tank was sucked dry long before the game started.
"I didn’t do my job tonight," Rivers said, "and I take that personally."
The Warriors, meanwhile, returned to form after a grueling and sloppy shooting performance in Game 3. The Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) accounted for 48 points off 33 attempts and helped propel Golden State to a 15-point lead at the end of the first quarter, and that lead would stick.
"We executed at a higher pace, and when we do that, we’re tough to guard," Curry said. "I was looking for any space I could get. … And once you hit a couple early, it seems like there’s more space that opens up."
"Our superstar basketball player was special," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said of Curry. The series now shifts to Los Angeles and Staples Center for a Game 5 Tuesday night that, if Game 4 was any indication, is sure to be a wide-open affair amid circumstances that few in the NBA have ever experienced.
Donald Sterling’s alleged comments have completely overshadowed anything having to do with basketball in this series and perhaps even the entire NBA playoffs at this very moment. The biggest question right now is what needs to be done. Both head coaches essentially dismissed the notion that the Clippers’ performance was a direct result of the mammoth distractions that this growing debacle has created, and all parties seem eager to get playing the game on the court and trusting NBA commissioner Adam Silver to do the right thing, in whatever form that may take.
To that end, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, who is working in an official capacity with the Players Association as a liaison to the league office, held a remarkable 24-minute press conference during halftime of Game 4. In the media room of Oracle Arena – with Warriors owner Joe Lacob standing at attention toward the back and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive making the rounds with select reporters — Johnson laid out how the players have complete faith in Silver’s ability to deal with this situation quickly and fairly and that they will be included in whatever disciplinary process is to follow.
"There’s absolutely no place in the NBA for these … reprehensible comments," Johnson said. "There must be sanctions."
Johnson also disclosed that he’d had a private and "productive" meeting with Silver earlier Sunday morning and that any discipline brought down on Sterling must be swift and severe.
It’s incredible to consider how this series has changed in the matter of a couple of days. The Clippers were a dominant force on Thursday night, outplaying the Warriors in just about every facet of the game. They didn’t play perfect ball, but they were thoroughly better in any way that mattered.
The story Sunday afternoon was of a Clippers team that stepped onto the Oracle Arena court 20 minutes before tipoff and engaged in silent protest, throwing their warmup jackets into a disheveled pile at center court and shooting warmups with their usual attire turned inside out. Rivers said after the game that he knew what the players intended to do but he didn’t try to dissuade them one way or another. He did clarify that he "wasn’t thrilled about it."
Still, organizing that protest was the most successful task the Clippers executed all day long.
So now you have a team who appears to have lost focus, but this series has now become about so much more than basketball. It’s become a national debate about race and and what it means to play for a man who clearly has a set of values that is not in step with the basic foundations of common decency.
And so while this series has, at least for now, transcended actual basketball, it’s actual basketball that these two teams will try and get back to on Tuesday night in Los Angeles. Chris Paul was asked about fan reaction and coming home for Game 5 and said "I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous," which is to say he has little-to-no idea of what to expect come then.
Whatever does happen in Game 5, the world will now be watching.