Column: Feisty Clippers become feel-good story of NBA
In the waning minutes of another furious Clippers victory this week, an NBA legend walking past press row paused for a second to deliver a message.
“These guys!’’ he said. “I love their effort! I love their intensity! I love this team.’’
When Jerry West speaks, you listen, and right now, Los Angeles needs to be listening.
The Clippers are alive again. The Clippers are fun again. The Clippers are actually a team again.
For the first time since they energized this town after Donald Sterling’s downfall in the spring of 2014, the Clippers are playing unleashed, unburdened basketball.
They’re not title contenders. They’re doing it with duct tape. They regularly begin and end games with at least one player on the floor who is completely unrecognizable.
But freed from heavy expectations and Chris Paul scowls, they’re an absolute blast.
Did you see that game-winning shot by somebody named C.J. Williams, making his NBA debut at age 27? How about that game-saving defensive play by Tyrone Wallace, the last dude taken in the 2016 draft? They may not have a Willis Reed, but dang it, they’ve got a Willie Reed, and his PER nearly equals Blake Griffin.
“I think it’s amazing, I really do,’’ said Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, in an interview Thursday. “There is an element of surprise, it’s one of the real feel-good stories in the NBA.’’
If the season ended today, a team that has started 16 different players — that is not a misprint — would qualify for the playoffs as the seventh seed and engage in a first-round series against the Houston Rockets that would be a hoot.
“It’s a fun team, man,’’ said Griffin, one of five starters who had missed time because of injuries. “We’re growing together as a team, instead of starting out the season close and growing apart, which is kind of the opposite of how we did it in past years.’’
He was indirectly referring to, among other things, the tension between him and Paul, a smoldering and suffocating dynamic that was on public display Monday night in the Clippers’ rattling 113-102 victory over Paul’s Rockets.
Everyone knew the two stars didn’t like each other, but few understood the depth of their animosity until Paul talked trash to Griffin on the court and later was involved in a group of four Rockets who entered the Clippers’ locker room looking for a fight. The league suspended only two of the Rockets while absolving Paul for being a ‘’peacemaker’’ during the incident, yet what was he doing in the middle of that group in the first place?
If the weight of Paul-Griffin feud was finally obvious, the lightness caused by Paul’s departure is now seen in a uniformly empowering effort by a team whose most valuable unit are bench players that call themselves “The Goon Squad.’’ They’re obviously not as good without their future Hall of Fame guard, but they’re not rolling over, either.
“We have guys who fit our culture — a hard-working, gritty, resilient culture,’’ said Frank, who has shown his smarts during his six months since replacing Rivers as the team’s basketball boss. “We have tough character players who are going to make you proud every night. Every once in a while your team creates a special identity, with a special spirit … this is that team.’’
Perhaps nobody has been more energized by all of this than Doc Rivers, who was under seige earlier in the season amid farewell criticisms by Paul and the feeling that the previous four playoff failures were part of his legacy.
“We won a lot of games but we didn’t get it done … we were an almost team,’’ Rivers acknowledged earlier this week. “It will haunt me forever.’’
Rivers has arguably been the best coach in the NBA this season, fighting through those memories by deftly guiding his strange and short-handed team — they started the year with nine new players — to victories with lineups that defy imagination. The group on the court Wednesday in the final frenzied seconds of the Clippers’ victory over Denver? Wallace, Griffin, Montrezl Harrell, Sindarius Thornwell and Wesley Johnson. Seriously.
Rivers had an emotional moment with his team after this week’s game against Houston, sharing his pride with them in a postgame locker-room speech as the Rockets were barging in. He said earlier that, in his 18 years of coaching, this is one of the two or three best groups he’s led.
“Every once in a while you get a group of guys you don’t know before the season that you enjoy, you just can’t wait to get to work and be with them and coach them,’’ Rivers said. “You know they have a ton of flaws, (but) you know they’re just gonna play hard.’’
Watching all this closely has been West, who sits courtside and confers with Clippers officials in the Staples Center tunnel and is having an impact that goes far beyond simply consulting. But neither he nor the rest of Clippers’ braintrust can relax with this team, knowing they might soon break it up.
Earlier this year, it was written in this space that the team needs to trade and tank. With the Feb. 8 deadline approaching and both DeAndre Jordan and leading scorer Lou Williams having the ability to walk away after the season, those trades could still happen.
But then again, emboldened by their recent success, maybe not. Maybe the Clippers trade only Williams for a draft pick, convince Jordan to stay after this season and manuever the roster so they can bring in a decent free agent to join what could eventually be a contending club again.
“It’s amazing how quickly things can change,’’ Frank said.
The heart of the franchise leaves — yet, revived and refreshed, the beat goes on.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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