At some point Saturday afternoon, Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders planned to walk around Staples Center, taking in the scene. He wanted to see the flowers, jerseys and other remembrances of Kobe Bryant that have gathered in layers of purple and gold since his death last Sunday.
“Anybody who comes near Staples Center feels the respect and just feels the emotion around here,” Saunders said.
But first, there was a basketball game for which the Timberwolves desperately needed to prepare. Minnesota was on a losing streak that had reached three weeks, so Saunders’ energy was pulled in a different direction before tipoff. He was not alone.
In recent days, Clippers coach Doc Rivers also has tried striking the balance between respecting the grieving process that followed the death of Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash, while also moving forward.
Bryant’s pair of retired Lakers jerseys remained uncovered high above the court Saturday, looming over the Clippers’ 118-106 victory over the Timberwolves. But this, the Clippers’ third game since the crash, was the first not to open with a moment of silence or an intentional 24-second violation as a tribute to the number Bryant wore with the Lakers.
“We just needed a win and to get back to being normal, as much as we can,” Rivers said.
For a roster with several players and coaches who were close with Bryant, normal remains a relative term. And yet Friday’s emotional pregame tribute at Staples Center amid the Lakers’ first game back — a moment Rivers called “phenomenal” — felt like a turning point amid the grief.
“Dealing with tragic moments like that, you know, every day always, it gets better every day,” said forward Kawhi Leonard, who scored 31 points with six rebounds, four assists and only one turnover in fewer than 24 minutes for the Clippers (34-15). “You know what I mean? And when you do a tribute video or if you see his face, then you know those emotions come back. So I guess us not being able to do something like that before the game kind of makes it easier to go out there and play.”
A late scratch Thursday against Sacramento because of tightness in his lower back, Leonard continued to make the game appear easy in his return by scoring 24 first-half points. He finished with his ninth consecutive game with at least 30 points, the second-longest streak in Clippers history, behind only World B. Free’s run of 11 in 1980.
If the atmosphere inside the arena following the early afternoon tipoff often felt flat, emotion still weighed heavily over the game. Mourners crowded L.A. Live outside, with many standing shoulder to shoulder.
“It’s kind of surreal that a guy we’ve grown up idolizing, such an icon, someone that his fans thought of as untouchable and able to do anything, get through anything, died,” said Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 32 points and 12 rebounds in his team’s 11th consecutive defeat. “Someone who we thought was so immortal becomes very mortal. It hurts. It’s also an eye-opening thing that any moment we all could go.”
Said Saunders: “You can feel what Kobe meant to, not just the game of basketball, but to a city and probably to people that might not have been basketball fans.”
The scene contrasted with the circumstances of the game itself, which should have been a joyous occasion for the Clippers. They played with a healthy roster for only the second time all season, and the first since Christmas.
The Clippers are now 14-1 following a loss. More than a fifth of their points came in transition, their second-highest percentage this season. Paul George scored 21 points in 25 minutes and Lou Williams added 17 and Montrezl Harrell 16 off the bench.
“It felt great to get back out there with the guys, be full strength,” George said. “It’s always good whenever we can do that and build toward something great. I feel good. I feel good. It’s all about building up towards that marathon at the end of the year.”
Even then, the team couldn’t escape reminders of the roster’s fragility. Amid an 8-2 run in the final 71 seconds of the first half that put the Clippers ahead seven at halftime, Harrell rolled an ankle. He returned, however, and played 11 second-half minutes.
George and Leonard each made three-pointers early in the second half to push the lead to 13, but George was inadvertently hit in the face and stayed on the court for nearly a minute. The forward, who missed nine consecutive games with an injured hamstring before returning Thursday, checked back in later and made a step-back jumper with seconds remaining in the quarter for a 12-point lead.
Their roll, and the Timberwolves’ rut, continued as George made a 27-foot three-pointer, a midrange jumper from the right side and a tip-in dunk in the fourth quarter’s first three minutes. Minnesota (15-33), meanwhile, didn’t score until 8:31 remained in the game, when its deficit had grown to 19.
“The game last night was important for the league, I think,” Rivers said. “Now you can feel everybody, we can get back to basketball.”
Leonard and his teammates were soon in the air headed toward San Diego State University, who was retiring Leonard’s jersey Saturday evening. Teammates and staffers boarded one plane Rivers said was chartered by owner Steve Ballmer, while Leonard and his friends and family took another.
Based on a recommendation from Bryant this summer, Leonard had used the same helicopter company, and pilot, involved in last Sunday’s crash. Asked whether he always would have used a plane to commute Saturday to San Diego, or whether Bryant’s crash changed his mind about using a helicopter, Leonard said the number of his friends and family led him to use a plane.
“I really don’t know the truth around [the crash], but what’s out there is, with a lot of fog, a lot of my helicopter flights got canceled because of fog,” he said. “If it’s a clear day then, maybe yeah, I would take it, just not at this particular point just because I have people with me.”