For most of the game they played hard but nice, two former teammates trying to act like this was just another game.
Then, in the final minutes of the Monday homecoming of former Clippers star Chris Paul, the elephant in the room roared.
In an on-court confrontation that later spilled into a potentially ugly locker room standoff, the world finally saw the fractured relationship between Paul and former teammate Blake Griffin.
They never really liked each other. In the end of Paul’s tenure here, they barely could tolerate each other. It is one of the reasons Paul forced a lopsided trade to the Houston Rockets last summer, and the reason Monday’s 113-102 Clippers victory became so heated.
In the first half, Paul could be seen shouting an expletive at Griffin. Then, with 3:34 left in the game, Paul fouled Griffin on a layup, then jumped in his face after Griffin argued the call. The two men stared and hurled a few words at each other before being separated as the Staples Center crowd openly gasped.
Griffin was so fired up, or maybe just plain mad at six years of pent-up hostilities with Paul, that he stormed through the rest of the game before being ejected with 1:03 remaining after picking up a second technical foul.
Griffin marched off the court screaming and exhorting the crowd before throwing his jersey into the stands in a display of emotion unmatched in his Clippers career.
But it wasn’t done yet. After the game, sources said Paul led a group of four Rockets — including James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green — through a back door into the Clippers locker room in apparent pursuit of Griffin and Austin Rivers, who didn’t play but was talking from the bench. Security officials reportedly stopped the men before a fight ensued, but the message was clear.
Paul is no longer a Clipper partly because he could not play with Griffin, and Griffin could not play with him, and maybe they broke up just in time.
The incident was a reminder of something about Paul that bothered all of his teammates. Paul was never so much a team leader as a team instigator. He was tough to play with, and tougher to play with when you didn’t play his way. He was Kobe Bryant without the ability to finish. For all his greatness, he was the guy who would lose the game, then look for a back door to pick a fight.
“We knew this would be an emotional game in some way; we didn’t know how,” coach Doc Rivers said.
But who would have thought it would be like this? The Rockets actually coming into the Clippers locker room?
“We were where we were supposed to be,” Griffin said. “We were in our seats; you have to ask them.”
The Rockets were unavailable to comment.
And to think that earlier that night, Paul was actually given a standing ovation.
He initially was booed every time he touched the ball but then, with 6:46 left in the first quarter, during the first timeout, the Clippers gave Paul what he did not have the grace to give them. They gave him a classy farewell.
The giant video board played a tribute. It was filled with replays of the magic Paul created during six seasons that altered a franchise’s history. There was Paul twirling impossible passes, dancing through acrobatic dribbles, and ultimately making the one-legged bank shot to beat San Antonio in Game 7 in the 2015 playoffs.
And here came the cheers, growing, growing, from the same folks who had been just been jeering, cheers that became a standing ovation that Paul recognized with a wave.
And just like that, the persistent booing ended. The good memories were bigger than the lousy departure. The gratitude was more powerful than the regret. It made complete sense even if it elicited some quiet frustration.
“Don’t get me started. ... I have no comment,” Doc Rivers said when asked about the video and its response. “But I was proud of our crowd.”
Afterward Paul acted like he barely heard it, saying, “I was talking to my coach about the defense. I had six great years here; great to see a lot of familiar faces. Tough loss.”
Chalk up one last sleight of hand for CP3. He is the only visiting player alive, it seems, who could be cheered at the start of the night, then basically blow off those cheers after chasing down the star of the home team in the locker room.
Paul certainly was worthy of the cheers. Yet after he forced his way off the team in a lopsided trade last summer — which was absolutely his right — he later set fire to the mess he left behind, criticizing the Clippers’ culture, citing a lack of communication, and claiming the team that finally contended didn’t try to contend.
Doc Rivers countered by implying that in his final year, Paul already was thinking about leaving and wasn’t committed enough. Rivers wondered why Paul had to go so negative when the Clippers always were so positive. And Rivers openly wondered why Paul never held himself accountable.
Paul helped give them national credibility for the first time. Paul put them on the playoff radar for the first time. Despite the star power of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and even Rivers, it is Paul who got this whole Clippers spirit thing started.
Of course, he’s also the one who ended some of their best chances. He melted down in the infamous Game 5 loss in Oklahoma City in 2014, committing two turnovers and an awful foul in the final 49 seconds. He couldn’t halt their collapse against Houston in 2015. Even in his final game as a Clipper, a Game 7 upset win by Utah, he had just 13 points while making less than one-third of his shots.
Asked about Paul’s legacy, Rivers said, “You’re always judged by wins, and we won a lot of games, but we didn’t get it done. … We’re all part of that legacy, you shouldn’t separate Chris. … We were an ‘almost’ team. … It will haunt me forever.”