LOS ANGELES – Doc Rivers pumped his fist toward the Staples Center rafters six times, screamed and suddenly began high-fiving fans seated near the court. Long praised for his coolness under pressure, even Rivers had to admit he lost his composure as the final few seconds of the Los Angeles Clippers' series-clinching Game 7 victory over the Golden State Warriors ticked off the clock.
All the stress of the past week, the taint from the Donald Sterling scandal, the tension of a taut, exhilarating pushed-to-the-brink, first-round playoff series unburdened itself from Rivers' shoulders in that moment, and the Clippers coach yelled in joy, or relief, or a mixture of both. Not even when he guided the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship did Rivers show so much emotion.
"I needed to exhale some too," Rivers said. "This was a hard week. Was it a week? I don't even know. It felt like two months.
"I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer and be proud of something."
Rivers soaked in the aftermath of the Clippers' 126-121 victory over the Warriors because it represented so much more for the franchise, for Rivers himself. From the moment Sterling's racial comments were made public late on the night of April 26, Rivers and the Clippers weathered a week unlike any in NBA history. The players considered boycotting Game 4 of the series, then were criticized by some when they opted to play. Within three days, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was levying a lifetime ban on Sterling and announcing the league would attempt to force him to sell the franchise.
"When Adam made his decision, we were at shootaround for Game 5, and that was the first time where everybody was like, 'Phew,' " Clippers guard J.J. Redick said. "You go into the locker room five minutes later and somebody tells a joke. I hadn't heard that for three days. When that happened on Tuesday that was the first real moment where guys started moving on."
For Rivers, that moment didn't arrive. He tasked himself with becoming the team's spokesperson during the crisis, answering every media question so his players could stay quiet. Instead of preparing for the Warriors, much of Rivers' days were spent talking with Silver, National Basketball Players Association liaison Kevin Johnson and even Sterling's wife, Shelly. On Friday, the day before the Clippers were to play a game that could end their season, Rivers went downtown for an emotional meeting with the franchise's staff.
Rivers "of all people, probably went through the most," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "He really had to deal with it the first couple of days. We weren't really. We as a team decided not to speak on it. He was the guy that everyone was looking to and he's the leader of our team. Emotionally, I can't imagine what he was going through."
Privately, Rivers leaned on his wife and four children for support.
"I didn't know what to do," Rivers said. "There was so much stuff. …I'm not going to tell everybody everything, but there was way more stuff going on. I was just trying to keep the guys together, man…
"It became such a burden because you had nowhere to turn."
Around the league, Rivers and the Clippers drew sympathy, but that didn't matter on the court. The Warriors, even without center Andrew Bogut, pushed the Clippers to the distance – and looked like they might finish them off. Finally, in the final two minutes of Game 7, Los Angeles' resiliency paid off.
"Our guys fought the adversity, they went through it, I thought it drained them and they found enough energy to find a way to win the game," Rivers said.
After Clippers guard Darren Collison closed out the victory with a pair of free throws with two seconds left, Rivers turned toward the crowd and screamed.
"My excitement was not for me at all," Rivers said. "It was for everybody. I wanted the fans to get excited. They were almost still sitting there in shock, and I just wanted them to get excited and exhale for a second because all we have is a second. We play on Monday."
Next up for the Clippers are Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Western Conference semifinal series begins on Monday in OKC, and the Clippers' coaching staff made sure each player left Staples Center on Saturday night with a scouting report on the Thunder.
With each passing day, the Clippers further separate themselves from the scandal. The players should enter the second-round series with clearer minds. Rivers, however, is still dealing with the fallout. When he returned home early Sunday morning, he planned to watch game film of the Thunder.
"I'm tired right now," he said. "I'm weak right now."