The absent man looms largest

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- All you need to know about how topsy-turvy this day was in the midst of the Los Angeles Clippers- Golden State Warriors game here in Oakland, the media's attention focused on the mayor of Sacramento, who happens to be a former Phoenix Sun.

The true man of the moment wasn't in the building. Yet there could be no doubt: This day was all about Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling was ... elsewhere.

Not sure what we should call his absence. Somewhere between a suspension and a self-imposed exile. Serving a suggested exile? It sounded that way the night before, when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Sterling's absence as the league begins its inquiry into the racially disparaging remarks attributed to him in a recording posted on TMZ.

Sterling's wife, Shelly, was here. She told ESPN's Lisa Salters that she wasn't sure whether the voice on the recordings was Donald Sterling's. She said that even though she has been married to him for 50 years. Shelly Sterling also said she doesn't condone racist remarks.   Kevin Johnson, Sacramento's mayor who has become the point man for the players' union on the Sterling issue, was here to meet with Silver.

At halftime, Johnson enumerated what the players want to see from Silver, including a swift resolution, an explanation of the sanctions at Silver's disposal and the maximum allowable punishment if Sterling's voice is authenticated.

Johnson also rightfully shot down the need to boycott. It's not fair to everyone who's worked so hard to get the Clippers to this point -- be it players, coaches, athletic trainers, season-ticket-account managers -- to jeopardize their chances of going further just because of the owner's attitude.

As Johnson said, "When you boycott, you boycott because you don't think it's going to be handled or dealt with appropriately, or you need more attention."

The last thing this story needed was attention. It had already blown up on social media, made the leap from ESPN to CNN and gone from the commissioner's office to the president's plate, as President Barack Obama was asked about Sterling at a news conference during his trip to Malaysia.

About the only thing a boycott would have done was save everyone the time of watching this game play to its seemingly inevitable conclusion. Maybe something like "Warriors 118, Clippers 97" would have happened anyway, given the nature of these teams and the course of this series.

Stephen Curry wasn't going to shoot 29 percent from 3-point range forever, and the market correction came quickly and drastically when he made five of his first six 3-pointers and the Warriors were on their way to a 39-point first quarter.

For anyone watching -- and probably for the Clippers themselves -- they will always wonder whether the game would have been more competitive if the Clippers hadn't been caught in the vortex of sports' current controversy.

As Johnson said of the Clippers players: "You saw the first half. They are carrying a burden."

"Maybe our focus wasn't in the right place," J.J. Redick said.

For the past week, Clippers coach Doc Rivers told the media that his task was to remind his players that they were playing the Golden State Warriors. It's not about living up to expectations or dealing with the officials; it's simply a matter of dealing with the primary opponent in their way. It's not so easy when the "peripheral opponents" come from within their own organization, when the preparation for the game was sidetracked by a debate over whether they should play the game at all.

Truth is, the boldest move the Clippers made on the court all day was when they came out before the game, removed their team-logo warm-up jackets, tossed them on the ground and went through layup lines wearing inside-out, long-sleeved, red shooting shirts.

When the shirts came off for tipoff, the players each had black wristbands and armbands. It was a statement of unity, defiance and protest. It also was more time spent thinking about something besides the task at hand.

"I wasn't thrilled about it, to be honest," Rivers said. "But if that's what they want to do, that's what they want to do." Rivers isn't thrilled about anything right now. Not even the fact that, with the series now tied at 2-2, Game 5 will be played in Los Angeles.

"We're going home now," Rivers said. "Usually, that would mean we're going to our safe haven. And I don't even know if that's true."

That had nothing to do with the fact that road teams have already won 16 games in these playoffs. It has to do with an uncertain atmosphere in which African-Americans are being encouraged to boycott Clippers games and police are gearing up for possible protests outside Staples Center.

This isn't the first time an owner has put pressure on his players during the playoffs. In the 2010 conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, with Arizona divided over a state bill that widened the latitude for police officers to request documents from people they had a "reasonable suspicion" were illegal immigrants, Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver had the team break out its "Los Suns" jersey -- and called the state law "flawed" in the accompanying news release.

Some in the Suns organization felt blindsided, pulled into the political debate against their desires by Sarver's outspokenness. Even as divisive as our debates have become, there's a huge leap from politics to prejudice. At least Sarver's actions didn't imply a bias against the majority of his own players.

How much did Sterling flip this series around? Suddenly, Warriors coach Mark Jackson isn't the one fielding questions about his relationship with his owner. Jackson is still only two losses away from triggering a potential offseason of upheaval for the franchise.

Rivers is the guy with two years and $14 million left on his contract. Yet when asked before the game whether he needs reassurances to continue working for the Clippers, Rivers said, "Don't know yet. I'm just going to leave it at that." Afterward, Jackson had the luxury of speaking in basketball clichés. "We made plays. ... We got stops. ... We played with a sense of urgency."

Rivers couldn't use the same old phrases, because he's in a place unlike any other we've seen for a coach.

"I just know it's my job as a coach to get them ready, and I just didn't feel like I did the right stuff," he said.

The Clippers' players took on similar responsibility. "That's all that matters right now: basketball," Matt Barnes said.

The challenge is to make basketball all that's discussed. Perhaps the NBA will announce penalties for Sterling before Game 5. That might provide resolution. It certainly won't change the subject matter.

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