Inspired after watching his team make history, a Los Angeles Clippers fan called into a sports talk radio show late Friday night. He identified himself as Greg and dropped a one-liner that undoubtedly he had been saving for years.
“The curse of Donald Sterling is broken,” he proclaimed.
Earlier that night, in the final moments of Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, an arena full of Gregs electrified Staples Center. They chest-bumped each other. They raised their arms. One, a guy named Jerry West, hugged his neighbor. At the end, after the Clippers completed a 131-119 win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz that ended this series, those fans whipped out their phones to capture the faces of people who felt just like they did: That a longtime hex over their franchise had lifted.
Gone (or at least temporarily forgotten) were the days of being known as L.A.’s other team, the one with a history of lottery-pick busts and second-round collapses. After 51 years of existing in a perpetual June gloom, the Clippers advanced to their first-ever conference finals, snapping the longest such drought among active teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball.
For their reward, the Clippers must now face the Phoenix Suns, thus far the most dominant, and subsequently, the most rested team remaining in the postseason. With the extent of Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury still fuzzy and the expectation that he will miss more games, the Clippers will likely be without their best player for their most important playoff series to date.
That reality, however, didn’t dampen one momentous night for this star-crossed franchise and the fans who love it.
“You felt it: the cheers, the excitement,” said Clippers guard Paul George, following the clinching win in front of 17,000 exulting fans. “You felt the monkey off the Clippers’ back in terms of getting out of the second round.”
George has been associated with the team for only two seasons, but he grew up 64 miles away in Palmdale, Calif. as a Clippers fan. Which meant he came of age just as the Los Angeles Lakers were three-peating with Kobe and Shaq. And yet, he still willingly rooted for the franchise that once drafted Michael Olowokandi with the No 1 overall pick.
But people like George - they refer to themselves proudly as Clipper Nation - have endured much worse than questionable No. 1 picks.
In 2011, Donald Sterling, the previous owner of the team, placed a newspaper ad announcing the Clippers’ celebration of Black History Month during a March matchup against the Houston Rockets. Problem is, Black History Month is in February.
By April 2014, Sterling was caught making racist comments in a recording of a private call. Clippers players staged a mini-protest, LeBron James spoke out and the league banished Sterling for life. During Sterling’s 33 years as the franchise owner, the Clippers wore ineptitude as though it was part of the team’s blue and red color scheme, and produced 27 losing seasons.
Under the franchise’s new and excitable owner, Steve Ballmer, the Clippers have tried rebranding themselves, forging their own lane in the city and embracing their otherness. Far from the glitz and glamour of the Lakers, the Clippers market grit and grind. And when playing home games, where gigantic images of the team cover the purple and gold championship banners and retired jerseys, it’s usually the longest-suffering player on the roster, Patrick Beverley, coaxing the crowd into cheers better than any Laker Girl could.
“Celebrating just to get in the playoffs, seeing a lot of people come and go, a lot of friends, and to be with an organization like this, to finish a game like this, to make history is special, man,” Beverley said, reflecting on his four seasons in Los Angeles. “I [put] blood, sweat and tears into this s--- . . . to be the last man standing and kind of write history is special.”
For Clipper Nation, rewriting history was relief.
“They have been starving,” Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue said of his team’s fans. “Starved for success.”
76ers keep trusting Process
Doc Rivers met Joel Embiid on the court, slapped the big man’s hand and gave him a big I-told-you-so in the waning moments of a Game 6 victory.
Rivers believed in his 76ers. Embiid, Seth Curry and even Tobias Harris came through down the stretch to reward Rivers’ faith in them and win in Atlanta.
“These guys are young, man,” Rivers said. “They need to believe that. I didn’t know if they did or didn’t. I thought they did. You can tell in the way we played. But he have another game.”
This Eastern Conference semifinal comes down to Game 7 Sunday in Philadelphia and there’s scant proof the home-court edge will matter much for the top-seeded Sixers.
Game 1, Atlanta leads by 26 points, wins. Game 5, Hawks trail by 26, win.
Both games in Philly.
Here comes Trae Young and the Hawks back to Philadelphia, with recent road success on their side -- but the weight of Atlanta’s career 0-9 mark in Game 7s on the road against them.
“You have to look at that, the fact we have won there twice in this series,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Saturday. “You should feel confident you can win in that building. We’ve done well, I would say, in the playoffs on the road. I think we feel we play with confidence on the road. It’s a one-game series and the pressure is on both teams.”
The pressure, really, is just on the Sixers. Just 14-20 when the Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce on March 1, they made the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and beat the New York Knicks in five games.
The Sixers have waited for this moment since they began their rebuild in 2013 and pinned their championship hopes on Embiid and fellow All-Star Ben Simmons. They were in almost the same spot two years ago when they lost Game 7 to Toronto in the East semis and Embiid left the court in tears.
Kawhi Leonard sank the first Game 7-ending buzzer-beater in NBA history for the Raptors -- and Embiid vowed the 76ers would return.
Two years later, it’s another Game 7.
Only this time, at home.
“Even back then, I believed if we had home court, it would have been easier to win,” Embiid said. “That’s why we worked so hard in the regular season, to get that homecourt advantage.”