LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul was the first of the Los Angeles Clippers to get to the locker room, running through the tunnel before he finally let his emotions wash over him behind closed doors. DeAndre Jordan walked teary-eyed while teammate Ryan Hollins put a consoling hand on his shoulder. Blake Griffin clenched a towel and offered only a blank stare. Coach Doc Rivers thanked some fans, slapped his hands together and finally lowered his head in disappointment as the hallway doors shut behind him.
The Clippers' season came to a close late Thursday, ending a wrenching, emotionally taxing month unlike any in NBA history. The Oklahoma City Thunder finished Los Angeles' playoff run with a 104-98 victory to close out the teams' Western Conference semifinal series in six games, but the future of the Clippers franchise will continue to play out, likely in courtrooms in the months to come. The NBA intends to eventually wrest the Clippers from owner Donald Sterling, yet only after his racial comments stained the franchise and triggered a scandal that continues to overshadow the league's postseason.
"It's nothing that anybody wants to go through, nothing I want to go through," Rivers said. "Overall, I thought our fan base and I thought the city and I thought our guys really hung in there. Very proud of them. The locker room was not very good after the game, in a very sad way.
"You know, just watching our guys, it just felt like all this stuff that they've gone through, they kind of released all their emotions. That was tough. That was tough to see for me as one of their leaders. Wish I could have done more for them."
The Clippers entered the playoffs with championship aspirations – and little drama. That all changed on April 26 when TMZ released an audio recording of Sterling telling his reported girlfriend not to bring African-Americans to games.
The Clippers players considered boycotting Game 4 of their first-round series with the Golden State Warriors before ultimately engaging in a silent protest in which they wore their shooting shirts inside-out to hide the "Clippers" name.
Paul said the scandal impacted the players only one game – a 118-97 loss to the Warriors in that Game 4 – but there was no denying the team continued to deal with the ensuing fallout and media storm through the rest of its postseason.
"Playoffs are hard enough physically," Clippers forward Matt Barnes said. "But emotionally I think our team was stressed to the max."
The Clippers faced elimination in Game 6 after blowing a 13-point lead with 4:13 left in a 105-104 loss Tuesday. Rivers was fined $25,000 by the NBA on Thursday for his critical comments about the officiating at the end of that game. And shortly before tipoff of Game 6, news broke of Sterling's plans to engage in a legal battle with the NBA – while also refusing to pay the $2.5 million fine that was part of his punishment.
"I'm not paying my $25,000 either," Rivers joked.
The Clippers opened Game 6 with a 14-point lead at the end of the first quarter, but that didn't keep Rivers from worrying.
"I thought we came out with a lot of emotion to start the game," Rivers said. "Didn't know if I really liked it, to be honest. I turned to one of my coaches and said, 'I don't know if I'm liking this because we better not hit a wall.' It felt like towards the end of the second quarter we never got our energy back to the way we played for the first quarter and a half. We tried."
Kevin Durant eventually settled into a rhythm on his way to 39 points and the Thunder surged past the Clippers.
"We just got stagnant and they came out and executed," Griffin said. "I don't know if it was energy. We just didn't execute. We just got away from what made us successful."
Rivers refused to use Sterling as an excuse for the Clippers. Thunder coach Scottie Brooks, however, could tell the controversy took a toll on OKC's opponent.
"They've been through a lot," Brooks said. "… Give them a lot of credit because what they've gone through is not easy. It's not easy for the entire league. Those were disturbing things."
Paul, especially, appeared exhausted of talking about Sterling.
"That's the last thing on our minds," Paul said. "We give him too much attention as it is."
While the NBA might have to fight Sterling to sell the franchise, Rivers didn't sound anxious to leave after completing his first season as Clippers coach. Still, even Rivers admitted he will likely have to prepare for a "messy summer." There's also the chance prospective free agents could be wary of joining the team until there's a change in ownership.
"I have a ton of faith in our league that we'll try to get it straight," Rivers said. "But we'll see. As far as how it affects us in bringing others in, I don't even know the answer to that. I just have a lot of faith."