Liquid courage oozed from Austin Rivers’ face after a series he would rather forget ended in a night he’ll always remember.
There was the blood that seeped from cuts above and below his left eye, the result of an inadvertent elbow that smacked him midway through the first quarter.
There was the sweat that streaked down his forehead, the Clippers guard having played almost the entire second half Friday night at the Moda Center and triggering a gutsy comeback.
There were the tears he couldn’t hold back, the jolt of what might have been his finest NBA hour overridden by a premature end to his team’s season.
“Mixed emotions right now,” Rivers said after the Clippers’ 106-103 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series. “I’m sad, disappointed. At the same time, I’m very proud of my teammates, my coaches and myself. I tried my very best. It was hard — I couldn’t see out of one eye — but I was trying and we were all fighting together.”
Clippers guard Jamal Crawford drives to the basket for a layup over Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee during the second half of Game 6.(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
Clippers guard Austin Rivers walks off the court, 11 stitches and all, after the Game 6 loss to the Trail Blazers.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum drives down the lane against Clippers guard Austin Rivers during the second half of Game 6.(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
Clippers guard J.J. Redick puts up an awkward shot as he’s guarded by Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, right, and center Mason Plumlee during the second half of Game 6.(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
Clippers guard Austin Rivers, who sustained a gash over his left eye in the first half, heads to the bench during a break in play in the second half.(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
Clippers guard Jamal Crawford pulls up on a drive and looks to pass against the Trail Blazers during the first half of Game 6.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Clippers guard Austin Rivers fell to the court with a gash above his left eye after taking an inadvertent elbow to the face from Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (not pictured) during the first quarter of Game 6.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Clippers guard Austin Rivers is helped off the court by a trainer after getting hit in the face during the first quarter of Game 6.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan throws down a dunk against the Trail Blazers during the first half of Game 6.(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers discusses a call with referee Sean Wright during the first half of Game 6 in Portland.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts after scoring against the Clippers in the first quarter of Game 6.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Clippers guard Austin Rivers drives to the basket against the Trail Blazers during the first half of Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Playoffs on April 29.(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan tries to power his way to the basket against the Trail Blazers during the first half of Game 6.(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)
It wasn’t a fair fight, of course. The Clippers didn’t have point guard Chris Paul or forward Blake Griffin for the final two games of the series after they were injured within a few minutes of each other in Game 4.
Shooting guard J.J. Redick was hobbled by a bruised left heel throughout the series. Forward Wesley Johnson was running on feet made tender by plantar fasciitis. DeAndre Jordan was briefly out of the final game after twisting an ankle in the fourth quarter.
The elbow that leveled Rivers, sending blood spewing onto the court, felt like a knockout blow as he walked toward the locker room to receive 11 stitches.
Only the Clippers kept getting back up.
So what if they had to briefly rely on a third-string point guard (Pablo Prigioni), a 38-year-old forward (Paul Pierce) and a second-year shooting guard (C.J. Wilcox) who was getting his first meaningful playoff minutes?
“They didn’t care,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “They never looked for an excuse.”
Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers propped up what was left of their team, combining for 53 points. Rivers returned midway through the second quarter and shrugged off stitches that didn’t quite hold up.
“He was bleeding every timeout,” Doc Rivers said. “It looked like a boxing match for him.”
Doc Rivers was so moved by his players’ grit that he gave out hugs and handshakes like he was vying for delegates on Super Tuesday. He got a speck of his son’s blood on his white dress shirt, one last battle scar from a series that ended with four consecutive Clippers defeats.
Team owner Steve Ballmer was among those who spoke in the locker room afterward amid a hush pierced only by sobs. The realization that more than half the team could be turned over this summer in free agency was beginning to take hold.
Pierce could retire. Griffin, Paul or Jordan could be traded. Practically the entire bench could leave in pursuit of more money from teams less constrained by the salary cap.
“I think you spend time in the NBA,” Redick said, “you realize that not every group is a good group and so you’re grateful.”
Austin Rivers, widely derided as an unworthy backup to Paul upon his arrival with the Clippers in January 2015, choked up when he told reporters about Crawford’s unwavering support.
“A lot of people doubted me when I came to L.A. a year ago,” Rivers said. “People thought I was just getting a chance because of my father. Jamal was the one who . . . Jamal believed in me, man. I’ve come a long way.”
And with that, Rivers rose from his seat behind a table and disappeared into the moist Portland night.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
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