You could hear it in the way the crowd exploded when Patrick Beverley was introduced before Game 6 against Golden State. You could feel it when the Clippers jumped out to an early 10-point lead. You could sense it when the team wouldn’t be extinguished midway through the third quarter. And even as the team clawed to stay within 20 points in the fourth quarter, you could just tell.
This Clippers team — maybe even more than the “Lob City” era teams — was one that connected with its fans. It was heart ahead of height, spirit ahead of skill, grit ahead of gifts. For a franchise that was introduced to Los Angeles as a punchline, with pain and agony as a prerequisite, this Clippers team felt like a reward.
Their marketing motto of “L.A. Our Way” fit the Clippers perfectly, a team that won 48 games this season and two more in the playoffs against the defending champions by defying conventions, winning without stars.
The season couldn’t have gone better — and if the Clippers get their way, it won’t have to happen again.
What happened Friday night in the series finale against the Warriors should serve as a reminder — team is great, effort is awesome and grit is fun, but superstar talent trumps it all.
Kevin Durant’s 38 first-half points was the kind of performance a player with a legitimate claim at “best in the world” makes when his team needs it. His 50 total points outlasted any teamwork, fight and fortitude the Clippers could muster.
It was a great reminder of what is at stake this summer for the Clippers. Whether it’s Durant or whether it’s Kawhi Leonard — two players who can be free agents — the quickest, most tried-and-true path to a great team is by having the greatest players.
It’s not lost on the Clippers, though this team was seductive. Beverley controlled the heartbeat of everyone inside Staples Center, a constant source of energy. The rookies, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamat, didn’t cower when the pressure was the greatest. Danilo Gallinari proved he could fight through injuries and finish the season on the court. And Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have transcended the “bench” moniker.
The emotional connection? It touched owner Steve Ballmer. As competitive as anyone, Ballmer was smiling for a change after a loss. He saw how Staples Center responded to his team, even as its season came to a close.
“The guys gave it their all. And I loved the fact that our fans appreciated what our guys did,” Ballmer said. “Our fans, the last game of the season, they said ‘We love you. We appreciate you.’ We’ve got a hell of a team. And our team inspires me. To be around guys who care that much, who work that hard and who are that tough — in a good way tough — that inspires me and it inspires fans.
“But that’s a great spirit. I’d ride with those guys anytime.”
If things go well, they won’t have to ride with all of them.
The Clippers have set themselves up for an influx of talent, whether it is through free agency or through trades. They’ve repaired their reputation around the league, with rival executives routinely praising the organization for a rebuilt infrastructure.
The Clippers’ investments in its basketball operations department, as well as in its scouting and analytics departments, have earned the team as much respect as the on-court attitude. Ownership is no longer a crippling disadvantage. Doc Rivers is coming off two of his best coaching seasons.
The Clippers didn’t need to push the Warriors to six games for the league to learn that. They’ve known it.
“When I came here, I basically said we’re not winning until the culture changes around here. And unfortunately, in my opinion, we wasted a lot of good talent trying to get the culture right,” Rivers said after losing Friday. “Now we have the culture right. And, to me, this team can absorb any talent. All the other things are in place for us to be great now.”
It’ll be tough for the Clippers to move on from this team. That’s a shared belief throughout the organization.
But Plan A is still Plan A — sign a star, a top-tier one. They’ve made their case. The organization is in a better place than maybe ever before.
If it doesn’t work out, there’s still enough here to keep the good feelings from this season alive. There’s no sense in rushing things by throwing money at players who can’t win you games the way a star won Game 6 on Friday. Good feelings and appreciative applause, though, aren’t the goals.
“I want to be THE winner,” Rivers said in his postgame news conference.