Blake Griffin took the microphone and led his teammates to center court at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon, ready to address a sold-out crowd that had been pumped up for the Clippers’ home opener by a display of fireworks and shooting flames and a too-loud, too self-important video.
“As a team, we want to do something here that has never been done before,” Griffin said, triggering roars.
He pledged that the Clippers would do their part to get to the promised land — which in their case is beyond the second round of the playoffs — but said they will need the fans’ energy to fuel them throughout the season. “This needs to be one of the hardest places to play in the NBA,” he said, to more applause.
More important, they need to be playing at Staples Center in May and June, deep into the kind of postseason run they’ve shown glimpses of delivering but have never put together.
There’s always something that seems to derail them. In 2014 then-owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments plunged the team into turmoil and got him banned from the NBA for life; in the playoffs, the Clippers failed to protect a 13-point lead over Oklahoma City with three and a half minutes to go in Game 5 of their six-game, second-round loss. In 2015 they squandered a 3-1 series lead over Houston in the second round, after they had ousted defending champion San Antonio in a dramatic seven-game series. Last spring, injuries to Griffin and Chris Paul doomed them to a first-round exit against Portland and left them frustrated at being unable to control their fate.
“We would like to write our own story,” Coach Doc Rivers said, almost wistfully.
Every season is a new story, and the first chapter of the Clippers’ 2016-17 season has a tone of optimism tempered by realism.
Their 88-75 victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday was built around defense, a point that Rivers has emphasized since training camp and an idea that has found receptive ears. It also was built around the strength of a second unit that has come together surprisingly quickly since Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights were added to the mix.
“I think the big difference from this year to last year is last year we were for the most part trying to figure out each other, not to get in each other’s way,” said reserve Austin Rivers, who had 19 points in an efficient performance. “I think right now we’re just trying to get off to a good start.
“I think when a group has one goal instead of everyone trying to fit in and do their thing, you end up doing your thing. And that’s kind of where we’re at. Everyone’s just focused on winning, and we’re defending.”
The Clippers being the Clippers, a good day had to have a bad moment. Doc Rivers and Paul both acknowledged they were concerned after seeing center DeAndre Jordan doubled over in pain from a right thumb injury in the third quarter, but Jordan returned to the game. X-rays taken afterward were negative, good news for a team that will complete a back-to-back sequence on Monday at home against the Phoenix Suns.
There will be no breaks this season, no letups, but the Clippers appear to have the depth to get through the inevitable tough stretches. Speights, with a championship pedigree and playoff experience with Golden State, could be tremendously valuable; Paul called him “selfless” for taking four charges Sunday and contributing despite having a poor shooting day.
“It’s all about preparation and enjoying the process,” Speights said, “and the process is going good.”
Well enough for the Clippers to control their destiny and author a story that has a happy ending?
“We’re still writing it,” Paul said. “We’ve embraced all the struggles and sort of put that behind us and take it one game at a time and ride this roller coaster.”
If they do, the fans will ride along, as they have for 235 consecutive announced sellouts.
“We’ve got to give them something to cheer about. We’re going to do that,” Paul said. “I think it starts with me, Blake and DJ, but there won’t be a game this year here at home or anywhere that we don’t come out and we’re the instigators.”