a 131-119 Game 6 win against the Utah Jazz on Friday at Staples Center, and the claps, cheers and gasps increased in volume for reasons beyond the home team’s performance. The Clippers eliminated the top-seeded Jazz, while becoming the only team in NBA history to overcome consecutive 0-2 deficits. The Clippers also advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
“Let’s Go Clippers!” those fans yelled in the stands and around the arena concourse. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer hugged executive Jerry West and his players. And Clippers forward Paul George waved to his family and friends that visited from nearby Palmdale.
“This was my first time experiencing a crowd like this since I’ve been a Clipper,” George said. “You felt it, the cheers, the excitement. You felt the monkey off of the Clippers’ back in terms of getting out of the second round.”
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Yet, that moment only represents a fraction of the Clippers’ disappointing history. The Clippers entered Friday’s contest losing eight consecutive closeout games that could have secured a Western Conference finals berth. The Clippers lost those games by an average of 14.9 points. They had also squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets six years ago.
Though the Clippers failed to advance past the second round with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, that hardly compares to the ineptitude and dysfunction the team experienced through the rest of Donald Sterling’s ownership. For over three decades, Sterling oversaw a hostile working environment that included his racist remarks, meddling and penny-pinching with endless trips to the NBA draft lottery. The NBA eventually forced Sterling to sell the team in 2014 after he was caught making racist remarks on a leaked recording. Ballmer then bought the franchise after serving various roles with Microsoft. Six years later, Ballmer finally saw his team make the next step.
“He was just congratulating me. I was congratulating him,” Terance Mann said of his postgame exchange with Ballmer. “I’m happy for him. He put so much work into this organization, so much to carry over the years, and so I’m glad to be part of it and getting him to the next level.”
As the Clippers have sought to reach the next level, they have done so while being in the Lakers’ shadow. It seems unavoidable given the Lakers have built historical equity in this city with their championships (12 of 17 in Los Angeles), their Hall-of-Fame stars and their appeal to both the Hollywood crowd and native Angelenos. Even when the Lakers missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, the Clippers never took any attention away from them. But with the Lakers losing in the first round, the Clippers hope now is finally the time to receive more attention.
“I know the Lakers are out and there’s a lot of Laker fans here,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who played on the Lakers’ 2001 NBA championship team. “But once the Lakers are gone, if we’re not playing the Lakers, you should be cheering for the Clippers because it’s all in one city. I can just feel the love and I’m very happy and proud of our guys.”
Lue might not receive his wish. But the Clippers at least experienced strong support from 17,105 fans. Friday’s game marked the first time Staples Center could have a full capacity after state-wide COVID-19 restrictions were lifted on Tuesday.
“We’ve been at a disadvantage in the playoffs because Dallas and Utah pretty much had full capacity and we were only allowed 7,000,” Lue said. “It’s great to have our fans back in the building.”
To welcome those fans back, the Clippers displayed a banner outside Staples Center that read, “Playoffs Our Way.” They distributed t-shirts with the same message to every fan. And the team’s in-arena DJs encouraged fans to wear the shirt and cheer loudly.
At first, those fans had little to cheer.
The Clippers hardly looked as ready as when they overcame 0-2 deficits to Dallas and Utah. Or when the Clippers won Game 5 in Utah despite Kawhi Leonard nursing a right knee injury that also kept him out for Game 6. The Jazz held a 72-50 halftime lead, while Donovan Mitchell (22 points) and Jordan Clarkson (21) alone only scored seven fewer points than the entire Clippers team.
Once again, though, the Clippers remained remarkably resilient. The Clippers trimmed the Jazz’s lead to 90-88 with 1:42 left in the third quarter after going on a 38-15 run. Mann scored 20 of his 39 points during that time. Clarkson remained scoreless, while missing two of his shot attempts.
After nursing a 94-91 deficit, the Clippers entered the fourth quarter in what arguably was the most important stretch of their franchise history. The Clippers seized the moment by outscoring the Jazz 40-25 in the fourth quarter, while Mann (39), George (28), Jackson (27) and Patrick Beverley (12) all finished in double figures. When Lue took his starters out with 37.9 seconds left, the sold-out crowd gave the Clippers a standing ovation.
“We couldn’t have done it without our fans,” Lue said. “If we don’t have our whole building here today rocking the way it did, it would have been a tough game for us to win.”
Hence, the Clippers stayed on the court longer to soak in the moment. Beverley, Mann and Marcus Morris Sr. all stood on the court and encouraged the Clippers fans to continue their adulation. They enthusiastically obliged.
“The city deserves it,” Beverley said. “We’ve worked our ass off trying to change the culture of this team. We try to make us one of those grit teams, those grinding teams. For that to be on full display tonight is very special.”
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