At 10 a.m. Monday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers slipped into a floor seat inside Staples Center just beyond a stage ringed with red roses.
From there, Rivers, a contingent of other Clippers employees and A-listers from the sports and entertainment worlds watched as Vanessa Bryant eulogized, Beyoncé sang and Michael Jordan cried during a celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
In the month since a helicopter crash in Calabasas killed the former Lakers guard, his daughter and seven others, “it’s been a broken-hearted city,” Rivers said. “Probably something I’ve never seen before, ever, anywhere.”
When the memorial ended, the celebrities scattered. But the Clippers still had a job to do. Rivers and a group of staffers ate lunch at nearby Bottega Louie, then returned to the arena with hours still before an evening tipoff against Memphis, replaying the morning’s memory.
“I don’t know how Vanessa did it,” Rivers said. “I don’t know how that was possible.”
At 7:30 p.m., Rivers slipped into another front-row seat in Staples Center — this time, to watch as his team ended a long day by making quick work of the Grizzlies.
The resulting 124-97 blowout snapped the team’s three-game losing streak and looking nothing like the lackluster performance produced only two days before against Sacramento.
After that defeat, Clippers players, including Kawhi Leonard, bemoaned that it had taken too long to truly begin playing. Playing with a full roster for only the fifth time this season, the Clippers had no such issues against the Grizzlies, however, a change that was evident from the start.
Three seconds into the first quarter, Patrick Beverley, the point guard who provides much of the Clippers’ edge but hadn’t played since Feb. 5 because of an injured groin, was haggling with officials about possession after a Memphis inbounds pass. On the other end, Paul George, who returned after reinjuring his left hamstring Feb. 13, scored the first five points.
Leonard, who scored a game-high 25 points, brought fans out of their seats twice in the opening seven minutes by flushing a left-handed dunk over Grizzlies forward Jonas Valanciunas and making a juggling layup in transition.
The Clippers have kept Leonard from guarding an opponent’s best player early in games this season, Rivers said, but turned him loose against top rookie Ja Morant, the speedy Memphis guard who finished with 16 points and a highlight dunk, but little in the way of denting the Clippers’ defense.
“I thought [Kawhi] set the tone as much as Pat tonight,” Rivers said. “Now it’s time and you can put him on anybody.”
George finished with seven points in 21 minutes and Beverley added six points in 19 minutes.
Center Montrezl Harrell scored 22 points off the bench for the Clippers.
“I didn’t like how we were playing before the break and didn’t like the [Sacramento] game the other night but I’m not concerned by it, if you wanted me to be honest about it,” Rivers said. “We just gotta get guys on the floor. We need more minutes together.”
They will be cautious with Beverley’s and George’s health moving forward, as both were hurt after straining previous injuries.
Keeping the starting and bench units together is no given, Rivers noted in a reminder of the team’s unpredictable history of injuries this season: Monday’s starting lineup was the team’s 29th different one this season. But however long this core can stay together, Monday provided a glimpse into their potential. The Clippers (38-19) held the Grizzlies (28-29) to a season-low 37 points before halftime and 41% shooting overall.
Announcing that both Beverley and George were returning to the lineup before tipoff, Rivers’ expression brightened.
“Can I get an amen?” he said.
He was just as pleased after the game. More than 13 hours after he arrived at the arena, Rivers stood from his chair with a groan and announced he was headed to bed.
“It’s been a good, long day,” Rivers said.