Dispatches from Section 213 are coded messages sent via carrier pigeon from the critical thinkers of Staples section 213. They will materialize from time to time with keen and insightful thoughts on a wide array of issues concerning the Clippers.
The Clippers’ last big home game of the 2014 regular season was a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. One week later, the game feels less like a harbinger of postseason doom than just another step in a season defined by process. Now, the team looks poised to make noise in the playoffs.
It’s a few minutes after midnight and Staples Center is deserted. L.A. Live’s towering LCD screens flash and animate silently, as though all of Downtown has fallen asleep with the TV on. The only sound rising above the 110’s fuzzy hum is the metronomic beep of a yellow Caterpillar forklift. It chirps in reverse along Chick Hearn Court, lowering a concrete planter onto the ground beside a disassembled outdoor stage.
The quiet of the area is noteworthy because earlier tonight Staples was as loud as I’ve ever heard it, with Chris Paul leading a dramatic comeback that came up just short against the Oklahoma City Thunder. With so many runs, violent dunks, and big shots by four of the NBA’s biggest stars, the game was a godsend for national TV, which too often this year has subjected viewers to anemic performances by the Lakers and Knicks (because, well, scheduling is hard).
But for the nearly 20,000 people in attendance, it was something greater: an object lesson in the value of a live, shared experience. Clapping and moaning in unison, holding your collective breath while a shot flies through the air, making far more noise than adults ought to in public — that’s all we’re really looking for as fans. What continues to bewilder me is that so many people are finding that experience with the Clippers.
The team owns the league’s sixth longest streak of consecutive sellouts, accounting for every regular season and playoff home game since February 2, 2011. Not all sellouts are created equal — notice those empty purple seats that sometimes dot the crowd, especially during opening quarters — but Wednesday’s game was decidedly packed. When Darren Collison drained a fourth-quarter three following one from Kevin Durant, the volume reached a level I’d never thought possible for fans of this team. Sure, Russell Westbrook managed to silence the crowd with two game-deciding rebounds (one of which was followed by a vicious dunk), but the feeling that the team would live to fight another day was palpable.
Optimism in the face of defeat is a new emotion for Clipper fans. I’d rarely experienced it, certainly not during the last two seasons, though there were hints of it following this year’s 116–112 loss to the Miami heat. With Chris Paul still recovering from his shoulder injury, Blake Griffin had perhaps his best NBA game. The change in reaction seemed to signify progress, unlike previous years, when a close loss to a good team was either the best-case scenario or (more recently) confirmation that the team had achieved good-but-not-great status.
It’s no secret what’s changed.
Much has been written about Coach Doc Rivers’ process-over-results philosophy and its effect on the team. After the Thunder loss, Rivers talked about how the game was “emotionally hijacked” by his team — that they wanted it too much and got in their own way.
Notice how he acts as a counterweight to the team’s mercurial personalities, whether it’s Chris Paul’s prickly demeanor, or Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan’s tendency to wear their hearts on their sleeves. When they win, Rivers implores the team to be cautious, reminding them of the work that remains. When they lose, he says he’s not concerned, that it’s all part of the process. The result is a steadying effect not only on the team, but also for fans — how liberating, not to live and die by every outcome!
The last two years included plenty of success, but it was always queasy. Each loss made it harder to hide the flaws of teams that eventually fell apart. Before that? Let’s just say I vividly recall attending games during high school where garbage-time Keith Closs was the chief reason for going.
Those memories don’t quite jibe with the packed-house passion on display last Wednesday night. Neither does the current public perception of the typical Angeleno fan: a front-runner or flake whose appearance at the game is just a ploy to snap a selfie in front of Drake, Rihanna, or one of the many other stars in attendance. And even if those generalizations aren’t entirely off base, it’s noteworthy that they now apply to fans of the Clippers, as opposed to the city’s other team — let alone that there even are other Clipper fans. (To those lifers who scoff at the newly enthused, I have to ask: Was it really better when the building was empty?)
This is unknown territory, kind of like the wine bars and luxury lofts on 11th and 12th streets across from Staples Center and L.A. Live. Putting aside the question of whether that kind of development is good or bad for the city, those establishments are remarkable simply because they didn’t used to be here.
And neither did the Clippers.
It’s natural, then, that uncertainty abounds with this team. Rivers acknowledged as much during the post-game presser. Tie loosened, brow still shining with sweat, he told a room full of reporters that he didn’t really know the team’s identity yet — that he couldn’t:
“I’ve never been to the playoffs with them,” he said in his mode of controlled candor that ingratiates him to the press. “I have zero experience in a lot of ways with this group. I think we all know as a group who we are, but you still really don’t know. The playoffs have to unfold.”
A week after that last big regular season home game of the season, the playoffs are upon us. The Clippers have logged double-digit wins over the Kings and Nuggets. And they’ve fallen to the Trailblazers in a star-depleted finale reminiscent of a preseason game. In hindsight, that Thunder loss effectively cost the Clippers a realistic shot at the two-seed — setting them up for a showdown with intrastate rivals the Golden State Warriors. Whereas in previous years the knowledge of that missed opportunity would suggest that the playoffs were doomed before they’d started, this year feels different.
“We’re definitely tougher mentally. It’s night and day,” said Jamal Crawford back in the locker room before the loss to the Thunder, which he missed while nursing his sore Achilles. “Last year, I guess we were like the champion boxer: he’s really good until he gets knocked down and you get to see what he’s really made of. Sometimes he gets up and sometimes he doesn’t. This year, we’re more battle tested.”
Whether that’s true remains to be seen. We don’t know how the team will respond to adversity — whether in the form of crafty small-ball lineups from Golden State or an unlikely return to the floor by Andrew Bogut. Nor do we know whether Rivers’ philosophy can stymie a future emotional hijacking before it even starts. But I can’t wait to find out.
Soon enough, Staples will be filled with another 20,000 screaming fans. That’s the only sound I want to hear.