Once-lowly Clippers have become big attraction
Matt Barnes jogged out of the visiting locker room and headed toward the Target Center court, where the hometown Minnesota Timberwolves awaited.
As he navigated the back hallways of the arena, he walked past a VIP section for fans and couldn’t help but notice something that he’s seeing more and more when his team hits the road these days. Dozens and dozens of fans in a city 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles were wearing Clippers jerseys.
”In my rookie year we were terrible and there was no one at our games, and when you’re on the road there definitely weren’t Clipper fans,” said Barnes, who broke into the league with the Clippers in 2003. ”So to see the support in every arena we go to really, no matter if it’s Miami, San Antonio wherever we go, there’s Clipper fans.”
With Doc Rivers giving the team a top-notch coach, Chris Paul instilling a nasty edge to a glitzy team and Blake Griffin making the leap from a high-flying highlight machine to a multi-faceted force of nature, the Clippers have won 16 of their past 18 games to pull within two games of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second seed in the Western Conference.
They are steamrolling toward their third straight playoff appearance, the first time the franchise has done that since it was in Buffalo in the mid-1970s. After the Braves made their final postseason appearance in 1976, the franchise embarked on a vagabond 30 years, moving from Buffalo to San Diego (where they became the Clippers) and then finally to Los Angeles in 1984.
They made just three playoff appearances in 29 years, becoming a league-wide punch line and second-class citizens in their own arena, where the Lakers ran the show. But things started to turn when Paul arrived in 2011 and helped the Clippers to the Western Conference semifinals. They lost in the first round last season, which cost coach Vinny Del Negro his job.
Rivers has brought a championship pedigree, an ability to get his message across to his players and a focus on the defensive end that has empowered DeAndre Jordan to the best season of his career. They lead the league in scoring, are second in point differential and boast one of the deepest benches in the league.
”I think we’re playing some of our best basketball at this time,” said Griffin, who has been bothered by a back injury this week. ”Still you know, we haven’t been healthy, we haven’t really had our full starting lineup so that hurts. But at the same time, it’s encouraging how we’re playing and that everybody seems to be completely bought in and we’re hitting on all cylinders.”
And with the mighty Lakers enduring one of the worst seasons in their proud history, the Clippers are making their move in L.A. The Lakers still rule the roost, but the Clippers have become the trendy team that young fans are getting behind, both in town and around the league.
”Yeah, we are the better team right now, but we’ve got to win and continue to win,” Barnes said. ”We got some work to do, but it’s definitely headed in the right direction.”
Notoriously tight-fisted owner Donald Sterling has opened his wallet for Griffin, Paul and a supporting cast that includes super sub Jamal Crawford, injured shooting guard J.J. Redick and veteran Jared Dudley, who filled in admirably for Griffin on Monday night in a 114-104 victory over the Timberwolves.
They’ve got all the ingredients to appeal to fans. There are All-Stars in Griffin and Paul. They may not like the Lob City nickname, but they’ve thrown 153 alley-oops this season, an electrifying play that brings the fans out of their seats.
And they carry themselves with a swagger and an air of invincibility that should serve them well come playoff time.
”That’s the attitude that we have to have, that no matter what the obstacles you just keep playing,” Rivers said. ”We have enough guys, and that’s what we talked about today. We didn’t mention the injuries. … You just go out and play and it’ll work out if you believe that and play well.”
As Barnes left the court on Monday night after the win over the Wolves, a crowd of fans wearing red Clippers jerseys huddled around the mouth of the arena to exchange high fives and beg for an autograph or two. For a franchise that was all but ignored when Barnes first arrived, it’s been quite a transformation.
”I think it’s great and a testament to the organization for kind of turning things around, and paying people and bringing the right coaches in and doing the right thing,” Barnes said. ”It’s cool now.”
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