We'll probably never know how much the Donald Sterling situation affected the morale and play of the Los Angeles Clippers from the time the story started leaking until the final buzzer of Game 4. We don't know if it kept them from winning and putting out a better effort in their Game 4 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
All we know is they didn't play well.
It's been the theme of the Clippers' franchise for years: Sterling and his decisions regarding the team hold the organization back and they become the laughing stock of the league. He sets up the organization to make money but fail in the process of doing so as he milks what he can from an enormous market. However, this Clippers team was supposed to be different.
Blake Griffin had grown into a legitimate star. Chris Paul had re-signed with an organization that didn't keep big name players. They brought Doc Rivers over to run things on and off the court, while cultivating a winning culture like the coach did with the Boston Celtics. Sterling was in the background, a mere awkward footnote that wasn't rearing its head like it had in the past. Then a disgusting tape with reprehensible viewpoints came to light and it forced the elephant in the room to step forward.
Once again, Sterling was overshadowing a franchise desperate to lose its bad luck. But the only way to do that was to find a way to get far from the owner who represented everything poorly run and cultivated by that organization. When Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and showed the players, sponsors, coaches, owners and fans of this league that viewpoints and symbols like Sterling and his private thoughts had no place in Silver's league, the cloud over the Clippers began to rapidly dissipate.
Tuesday night, the Clippers came out looking to hold home court in Game 5, which was truly their own home for the first time in franchise history. There wasn't going to be the awkward reminder courtside. Sterling was banned from the arena and the crowd was with the Clippers. The organization didn't have to look the other way anymore. Even the opponents of the Clippers for Game 5 were discussing extreme plans of showing solidarity if the correct decision wasn't made by the commissioner prior to the game.
Prior to the game, Rivers had this to say about the next step for the Clippers and this league:
"You always have to move forward," Rivers said. "And I've said this before, obviously I've dealt with issues before, you learn over and over that when something like this happens with the burden of racism, it always falls on the person who has been offended to respond. I've always thought that was interesting. I felt the pressure on my players; everybody was waiting for them to give a response. I kept thinking, 'They didn't do anything, yet they have to respond.' So Adam [Silver] responded. I thought that was the sigh of relief we needed."
The sigh of relief Rivers speaks of was on display in the Game 5 victory. The defensive effort wavered at times, but it was good enough with DeAndre Jordan protecting the rim and the perimeter defenders swarming Stephen Curry into eight turnovers. The shooting never buckled with the Clippers making nearly half of their shots and hitting on 40 percent of their 3-pointers. The Clippers picked up the free throw shooting of Jordan (9-of-17) by supporting him with a 22-of-24 effort in the game.
The Clippers didn't come out and blow the Warriors out of the water while riding an emotional wave, but they did handle business while trying to handle a very emotional scene as they played their first game without Sterling as a part of the organization.
"When we went out for warm-ups, it was one of the most emotional things I've ever been a part of," Paul said. "We have a tough locker room, but it almost brought tears to your eyes to feel the support from our fans. Seriously, it was amazing running out for warm-ups, to see all the people lined up, to see our fans.
"It was emotional. It was very emotional. I can't say 'thank you' enough to all the fans who came out and supported us."
Paul didn't shoot well (6 of 17) but he did manage the game quite well. He gave his team 20 points, seven assists, five steals and just two turnovers. He kept them focused and channeled the nervous, morale-killing energy of the past two days into a winning effort. While the distractions were certainly there, it was something the Clippers could overcome.
"We have distractions all the time," Griffin said. "The magnitude of this, it was a little crazy. But even when something like this happens, you spend emotional energy just trying not to think about it and trying to say, 'OK, we're not going to let this distract us.' Whether you try or not, it's going to be a little bit of a distraction. Honestly, really proud of how the guys responded, especially tonight through all of this."
The Clippers will have a chance to continue finding their new franchise identity with another win in the next two games against the Warriors and a berth into the second round against the winner of the Grizzlies-Thunder series. But most importantly for everybody involved, they won't be doing it for Donald Sterling. They'll be doing it in a world in which he's merely the temporary owner of the team as Silver and the owners work him out of their league.
The Clippers are 1-0 without Donald Sterling, and they can finally breathe a sigh of relief.