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Original Issue

Drama Class

The Sterling saga almost swamped the Clippers, who stuck together (and sank threes) to advance

A week that started with a suggested boycott and climaxed with a historic ban ended with a call for Gail Griffin's strawberry cake. Gail's son, Blake, put in an order on behalf of the Clippers after they advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, which opened on Monday in his hometown of Oklahoma City. No team has endured more distastefulness just to survive a first-round series. Since audio recording of their owner's racist rant went public on April 25, the world has met Donald Sterling, Adam Silver and V. Stiviano. Protests were scheduled at Staples Center. Sponsorships were pulled. Doc Rivers said he didn't know if he'd return as coach and senior VP of basketball operations next season.

Then, on April 29, Silver, the NBA commissioner for three months, imposed a lifetime ban on Sterling, an NBA owner for 33 years, and took steps to force him to relinquish the team. A triumphant press conference was held at Los Angeles's City Hall. Luminaries from Magic Johnson to Oprah Winfrey reportedly mulled bids on the franchise. Fans reacted as if a dictator had been overthrown, showing up to Game 5 wearing T-shirts with Sterling's face crossed out and carrying signs: NEW OWNER WANTED! RACIST NEED NOT APPLY! and I'M HERE FOR GRIFFIN, NOT STERLING. Every angry gesture was broadcast on the JumboTron. The Clippers were encouraging a coup.

By Friday, players appeared so spent from the ongoing drama that Rivers ordered them home 30 minutes into a fruitless practice—about 30 hours before their Game 7 tip-off against the Warriors. They sent group text messages later that day to rally each other for the game.

The Clippers gave up 64 points to the Warriors in the first half while Sterling's wife, Shelly, watched from a suite at Staples Center. They trailed 107--106 with 3:39 left to play. But Lob City, as the team has been known since point guard Chris Paul arrived in December 2011, responded with three high-wire alley-oops, and Griffin sank a no-look layup that he flipped over his head after getting forearmed in the chest. He didn't even fall down. He planted his hands on the floor and pushed himself right back to his feet. "This was a hard week," Rivers said after the 126--121 win. "Was it a week? It feels like a month."

The Clippers don't yet know whether the gantlet will sap them or steel them. "There's not really a team that's gone through this," Griffin said. "I remember when everything hit, you could see certain guys who were really emotional about the situation. This was the first day, and it got a lot bigger. It grew with each day—and each hour, honestly. It wore on guys. We tried to [say], 'Let's put this off to the side,' but that's impossible."

When Rivers was hired last summer, general manager Gary Sacks asked him what he needed, and he replied, "In a Game 7, shooting shows up." They promptly acquired sniper J.J. Redick, who drained three three-pointers to help oust the Warriors. L.A. had the league's most prolific offense partly because of new marksmen who can space the floor around Griffin and Paul, a luxury the Thunder's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook still do not enjoy. The Clippers have a chance in this series because of their balance and resolve. As they left Staples late Saturday night, they carried OKC scouting reports. Their strategy will matter less than their psyche.