One word from Doc Rivers said everything about the strain that had enveloped the Clippers.
"Whoof," the Clippers coach said Wednesday night, exhaling deeply before he took questions from reporters inside Philips Arena in Atlanta.
His team had made the most of what felt like a lost trip even with three wins in five games, but the Clippers returned to Los Angeles on Thursday facing an uncertain future surrounding Blake Griffin after the All-Star forward suffered a broken right hand while punching a team assistant equipment manager.
There were a handful of pressing issues to untangle: What sort of punishment might Griffin face? What kind of reception would he receive from Clippers fans upon his return to Staples Center? How would he coexist in the locker room with Matias Testi, a friend whose face he left severely swollen after throwing a flurry of punches?
It's impossible to know what Rivers and team owner Steve Ballmer are thinking as far as punishment, but based on the language in a harshly worded statement issued by the team after the altercation, a significant suspension appears likely. The NBA is also expected to have a say in whatever sanctions are imposed.
If Griffin was suspended from three to five games, he would probably be sidelined at least a week on top of the four to six weeks he is already slated to be idled because of the injury he sustained in the altercation. Griffin could also face a fine, though that wouldn't have much impact on someone who in his career already has made more than $76 million in salary.
Rivers said that Griffin could return to Staples Center as soon as Friday, when the Clippers face the Lakers in a Clippers home game. That raises the question of what kind of reception Griffin would receive from fans who have embraced him since the Clippers made him the No. 1 selection in the 2009 draft.
One loyal season-ticket holder has already emailed Griffin and Ballmer demanding that Griffin provide a full explanation or the fan will ask for a refund, but it seemed reasonable to expect that most Clippers fans will embrace Griffin upon his return. He has been a charismatic, friendly and wildly productive member of the team and has shown remarkable restraint on the court when players on other teams have tried to provoke him with physical play.
DeAndre Jordan, who is close to both Griffin and Testi, said it would be good to see Griffin back around the team.
"Yeah, just to keep his spirits up," Jordan said Wednesday. "He definitely misses the game, we miss him. As soon as we can get him back on the court healthy and everything, it's going to be great for our team."
A more pressing concern is how things will play out in the locker room if Testi also rejoins the team, which Rivers said was expected. It could be an awkward situation for a while, but it probably helps that Griffin and Testi are universally well-liked by Clippers players, who have voiced support for both parties.
It could also be akin to the aftermath of a family squabble: There's no choice but to stay together.
"They're good friends, they're going to figure it out," Clippers guard Austin Rivers said.
Some might say what's the big deal with the Clippers having won 13 of 16 games since Griffin suffered a partially torn left quadriceps tendon Dec. 25.
For one thing, they have only a handful of quality victories during their recent surge. They have won using smaller lineups, playing better defense and taking more three-pointers.
The Clippers' stylistic shift could present a quandary once Griffin returns. Do they try to integrate Griffin into the system they have adopted or go back to an offensive approach that relied heavily on Griffin taking long jump shots?
The Clippers' schedule also takes a much tougher turn after the All-Star break, with two games against the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder and one each against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers through the middle of March, which is likely to be the earliest Griffin would return.
Griffin's teammates appeared to be holding up OK, even if they were slightly exasperated by the situation. The court has been a sanctuary for a team already playing without one of its top players for an extended stretch. Now the wait only gets longer.
"We went through a lot of stuff," Doc Rivers said. " 'Clutter' is what I call it and our guys, the best place for them is on the floor and they're playing like that."
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