For a moment this week, it seemed the Clippers’ title quest, spurred by Kawhi Leonard’s playoff brilliance, could be over.
Not because the idea of winning the franchise’s first championship meant any less to the players, Landry Shamet said, but because he and his teammates care so much more about the racial injustices happening outside of the bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“One thing that I think is getting lost in all this, this isn’t about wanting to play basketball,” the Clippers’ guard said on a Zoom video conference Saturday. “We want to play basketball. We’re professional basketball players. This is what we love to do, it’s what we want to do. It’s a matter of, with everything going on in the world socially, racially, it was a matter of, like, we don’t know what the right thing to do is.”
After some tense hours of reflection and a couple days of dialogue, along with the announcement of some actionable plans by the league and the players’ association, the players decided the right thing was to play on.
And so the playoffs resumed with three games Saturday and, on Sunday, another three contests scheduled, including the Clippers’ Game 6 matchup against the Dallas Mavericks.
With Leonard, last season’s NBA Finals MVP, contributing 32.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series, the Clippers are ahead 3-2 following their franchise-record-setting 154-111 rout in Game 5. That game was Tuesday, but with everything that transpired during the week that NBA players walked off the job to protest the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, it feels longer ago.
“We’d only had two days off, it just felt like it was a week,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers before his team practiced Saturday, as it had Friday. “I think guys are ready. Yesterday’s practice was good – I think they needed to go up and down, which we did.”
Rivers said the Clippers are fortunate to be playing Sunday and not Saturday, because they got an extra practice to prepare for a dangerous Mavericks squad that won’t have Kristaps Porzingis – who’s been ruled out for the series with a lateral meniscus tear – but will have a healthier Luka Doncic.
Doncic, who has been playing despite a sprained left ankle suffered in Game 3 on Aug. 21, is shooting 49% from the field, averaging 29.6 points, 8.6 assists and 10 rebounds per game in his first NBA playoff series.
“Ankle’s doing well, all things considered,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said Saturday morning. “I think the extra two or three days is a plus, certainly.”
The unanticipated time off might have aided in Patrick Beverley’s ongoing recovery, too. The Clippers’ guard has missed the past four games (and nine of the past 10) with a strained left calf, but the team upgraded their vocal leader from doubtful to questionable Saturday.
Spending a few days away from basketball was beneficial in other important ways, too, Rivers said Friday: “We all needed to take a breath.”
“For sure,” Shamet said. “I think that’s one thing that – we hadn’t really had time to, one, collectively, all the players come together and really, like, get to address some of the issues that we did, just be able to talk and have some good conversation.
“And then, personally, me just being able to sit in my room and kind of just cope and reflect on everything that’s happened. It was therapeutic in a sense. It was hard. It’s been weird and painful, but I think it’s important … just to have that step away for a split second.”
The experience of the past week has brought the Clippers – and the players on the other 13 teams remaining in the bubble – closer, Rivers ventured.
“I think what really is closer is just the players in general as a group,” said the veteran coach, whose impassioned postgame speech about policing and racism Tuesday served as something of a rallying cry for many within the bubble in the following days.
“As much as they all know each other, when you get on a team, you don’t know each other, you just know the guys on your team. So I think the whole exercise of that has brought everybody (together).”
Paul George concurred, saying he’s grown even closer with teammates who’ve helped support him as he dealt with the depression and anxiety he was experiencing recently in the bubble.
“Absolutely,” the Clippers forward said. “I mean, this is a roller coaster. It’s a roller coaster being in here, so all of us are riding this wave together, and it’s an experience we’ll all take away from it. But we definitely got closer.
“We had to spend two days of talking and having uncomfortable conversations. You know, you got to see different guys’ points of view and different guys’ interests, and there was just a lot laid out on the table that the whole team kind of talked about. We definitely got closer.”
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida
TV: Fox Sports Prime Ticket, ESPN
Doc said later that the past couple days felt like a week, and Landry Shamet said they brief respite was important for players to collect their thoughts. (Thanks to @kylegoon in the bubble for all the videos!) pic.twitter.com/ExYLQBX5eP
— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) August 29, 2020