One swaggering step at a time, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley made the short walk from Oracle Arena’s court to its visitors’ locker room Wednesday night. He marched off the hardwood, up a dark tunnel and turned to his right, down a carpeted path.
“Hell yeah!” he bellowed.
After a 129-121 victory in Game 5 of the Clippers' first-round playoff series against top-seeded Golden State, that is where the celebration ended.
Ten days after teammates, coaches and executives raised their voices just to hear one another above a raucous din following a 31-point comeback to win Game 2, the Clippers’ locker room was ruled by restraint after a season-saving victory.
Staffers perused a buffet featuring catered In-N-Out cheeseburgers. Players sat at their lockers, many still in uniform, their feet in ice baths and eyes on their phones. The quiet was punctured by the sound of coaches cracking beers while relaxing in folding chairs.
There was little celebration because trimming the Warriors' lead in the best-of-seven series to 3-2 was the expectation.
“We just see it as one win,” rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We still need to get two more, so we’re not overly excited about this one.”
The Clippers had good reason to go wild after their record-setting Game 2 comeback but were promptly blown out in their next game and on their home court, no less. In Game 4, they allowed a winnable game to slip away. Given another chance in Oakland, they ensured their season would continue at least two more days.
“We grew up,” coach Doc Rivers said. “They taught us a lesson in Game 3 that one game means one game and I thought tonight we came in with briefcases and just decided we’re going to be us. We’re going to play like us.”
The victory was emboldening. From Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s shooting, Kevin Durant’s size and Draymond Green’s defense, Golden State’s roster of future Hall of Famers provides a dizzying array of fail-safe options to turn to in times of trouble. Defeats, though more common this season than at any point during coach Steve Kerr’s four seasons, still often require a total breakdown of the system. And yet the Warriors’ turnovers, usually an indicator of their level of focus, were limited to eight. They received 91 combined points from Durant, Thompson and Curry.
Just because it wasn’t an off night doesn’t mean it was a flawless one.
Tipoff in Oakland came just after Houston won its first-round series against Utah, setting up a potential rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. Just as Rockets center Clint Capela told reporters “bring on the Warriors" in his postgame remarks, Thompson acknowledged afterward his focus was elsewhere.
“I thought we were going to come out and win tonight,” he said. “Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.”
Several Clippers had spent the two days since Game 4 hearing their Cinderella season was coming to an end too.
“Everybody,” Rivers said. “You accept it and you listen to it but I told our guys: ‘Everyone’s going to tell you that. Don’t listen. Only you believe what you believe.’”
Said rookie guard Landry Shamet: “Whether they meant it disrespectfully or not, naturally you see a 1-8 matchup and going back to Oracle and you’re down 3-1.… I don’t know, a lot of people looked at it that way.”
Confronting elimination, the Clippers didn’t have the luxury to look ahead. Danilo Gallinari texted friends before Game 5 that his first postseason in seven seasons wasn’t over yet. The response shouldn't have surprised his friends. The Clippers have provided ample reasons why it is best to hold off on prematurely pronouncing them dead.
“Even with my girlfriend, she’s not even talking about vacation,” said Gallinari, who had 26 points in his highest-scoring game of the playoffs. “That’s out of the window. She knows that we got a job to do.”
As Rivers addressed players before tipoff, that job was to “just be us.” Indeed, they looked like their usual selves when it mattered most. Since the Feb. 7 trade deadline, the Clippers led the NBA in clutch situations, posting a 10-3 record in games separated by five points or fewer with five minutes remaining. After a dunk by Durant tied the score at 116 with 3:29 remaining in the fourth quarter in Game 5, the Clippers made four of their last five field goals to close on a 13-5 run.
“The defense was all out of whack,” the Warriors’ Green said.
The Clippers left feeling in sync ahead of Friday's Game 6 at Staples Center.
Fifty minutes after he’d stomped down the hallway, Beverley left the arena quietly, not smiling, until he reached the door of the team’s charter bus. He raised his voice only enough to be heard above its idling engine.
“We still got work to do,” Beverley said. “We feel like we can play with the best of them, and we proved it.”