Clippers are not riven by distraction

Their owner was thrown out of the league, their organization is buried in chaos, yet the Clippers play on.

They were humiliated by hate, distracted by protests, exhausted by stress, yet the Clippers play on.

It was a series that could have finished them. It was, instead, a series that has defined them.

Exactly one week after their world was rocked by the release of an audio recording containing racially charged comments by owner Donald Sterling, the Clippers finished their fight through the sludge Saturday with a 126-121 victory over the Golden State Warriors in the deciding Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

A series of seething turmoil ended in screaming relief. A series mired in pain ended in joy. The gestures of Doc Rivers, the rarely celebratory coach who calmly led his team through the continuous controversy, spoke volumes in the final seconds with a fist-pumping dance down the sidelines.

“I needed to exhale ... this was a hard week, it feels like two months,’’ Rivers said afterward. “I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer and be proud of something. And I was very proud of this team.’’

The Clippers' resilience began the night before the game, when the players began texting each other with inspirational messages.

“Guys were texting like, 'No, this can’t be over, it’s not our time to be over,' ’’ Paul said.

Their strength continued on the court after they fell behind by a dozen during the first half, when the Warriors were shooting nearly 60 percent. Golden State was making shots from every corner and taunting with both hands. The Clippers were chasing and gasping. The hundreds of Warriors fans that had infiltrated Staples Center were making the noise of thousands.

In the Clippers' huddles, during their timeouts, the players kept referring to the words of those texts.

“We just felt it,’’ said Paul. “It’s not time for our season to be over.’’

Midway through the third quarter, that belief covered the court. A DeAndre Jordan block and a couple of Paul jumpers got the Clippers started, and here they came, bringing the roaring red-shirted fans to their feet with seemingly every streak down the court. J.J. Redick splashed. Blake Griffin bulled. Stephen Curry missed and missed.

The Clippers outscored the Warriors, 31-20, in the quarter, and during the break, the loudspeakers appropriately blared the song with the words, "The ceiling can’t hold us.’’

Said Paul: “If we were going to go down, we were going to go down swinging.’’

Not the Warriors, not the pressure, not even that darkened arena ceiling could hold them in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers came back with swarming defense and daring offense, winning the game in the final two minutes on several plays Clippers fans will be talking about all summer.

There was the blocked shot by Jordan followed by an ally-oop dunk by Griffin on a pass from Redick. There was the dunked follow by Jordan. Then there was the flailing, falling, spinning layup by Griffin.

Seven Clippers scored in that fourth quarter. Five Clippers had assists. Their teamwork mirrored their behavior off the court during the previous week. The team’s new "We Are One" motto became more than just a slogan.

“Through this whole thing, we were a team,’’ said Rivers. “If there’s a message there, if you thought about it, we all had the same voice, one voice, everybody, we echoed, we said the same thing.”

Afterward, those voices were mostly relieved laughter, and while some may say they only won a series they were supposed to win against a lower-seeded and outmanned Warriors team, the truth is that they won a series they had every reason to lose.

Sterling has been banned from the NBA, nobody knows who’s in charge,  Rivers even had to give a pep talk to the tearful front office on Friday, yet the Clippers play on.

They will now fly to Oklahoma City for a second-round series against the Western Conference’s second-seeded Thunder beginning Monday, but it’s difficult to imagine this team now being intimidated by anything.

“I’m exhausted, everybody is, not just physically but mentally,’’ said Jamal Craword, who only missed five of a dozen shots and scored 22 points. “But we are mentally tough.’’

Their Game 7 play -- down early, triumphant late effort -- indeed resembled their series presence from the moment Sterling’s words became public on the day between Game 3 and Game 4.

Initially, the Clippers were humiliated and considered a boycott. When they finally decided to play, they barely played and were beaten easily in Game 4 in Oakland as the Warriors tied the series.

Late Saturday night, for the first time, a Clippers player revealed the depths of the team’s angst, with Griffin talking about the day the tape went viral.

“I remember Saturday morning everything had hit, you could see certain guys really get emotional about the situation,’’ he said. “This was the first day and it got a lot bigger, it grew and grew with each day, with each hour. It wore on guys. We tried to put this to the side, but that was impossible.’’

They returned home to the news that the NBA had banned Sterling for life, leading to a relieved victory in Game 5. But then, worn out from that initial rush of emotion, they were beaten by a point in a Game 6 that didn’t seem that close.

All of that led to Saturday night at a Staples Center filled with the usual red-shirted and roaring fans who have come to symbolize this Clippers rebirth.

There were many winners here, the first being those fans who embraced the team through their dislike for its owner. The Clipper Nation -- and, indeed, they seemed like a nation this week -- was so loud during pregame warmups on the Clippers' first appearance there since the scandal that Paul said he had to fight back tears. While there are many more Lakers fans in Los Angeles, the Clippers fans are establishing themselves as just as loud and passionate.

“This place is unbelievable,’’ said Crawford, who late in the game was raising his hands and urging the fans to stand before realizing they were already standing. “These fans make a difference.’’

The biggest winner in the Clippers' locker room was new boss Rivers, who could be named coach of the year simply for his performance of the last two weeks. His $7-million contract and accompanying hype now seem justified after he kept his team from collapsing under the weight of all the stress placed upon them by the Sterling scandal.

“Because of this week, I’ll remember this game for a long, long time,’’ said Rivers.

The other big locker room winner was Paul, who played hard despite battling injuries to his right hamstring and left thumb. Despite being neither the biggest nor fastest, Paul remained the toughest guy on the floor, bumping Curry into frustration while finishing with 22 points and 14 assists.

Afterward, Paul said his best move was actually getting rid of his cellphone during the most controversial days and focusing only on basketball.

“I don’t really remember the past couple of weeks except, it’s been exhausting,’’ he said.

Exhausting, but not defeating. Paul overcame. Jordan overwhelmed. Griffin overpowered. The Clippers play on.

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