Clippers, Rivers can finally exhale

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LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers finally let loose.

After being the calming voice and face of a franchise in turmoil for the past week, Rivers finally let his emotions spill over.

With two seconds left in the Los Angeles Clippers' 126-121 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 on Saturday night at Staples Center, Rivers started pumping his fists and high-fiving everyone in sight -- fans, players, even the team's television analyst, Michael Smith.

"I just thought this team really needed the game," Rivers said. "I just wanted us to win the game. Not because of not winning last year, I just thought with all this stuff, this team just needed a win. My excitement was not for me at all, it was for everybody. I wanted the fans to get excited. They were almost sitting there in shock, and I just wanted them to get excited and exhale for a second."

Rivers and the Clippers never had much of a chance to exhale over the past week. Last Saturday, they were holding a team meeting at the Four Seasons in San Francisco trying to decide if they would even play basketball in the wake of racist comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling being made public on TMZ late Friday night.

They didn't know it at the time, but they were in the eye of what would become an international storm that would eventually engulf Sterling, who was consequently banned for life by the NBA and was on the verge of prematurely ending what they thought was going to be a championship season.

"There's not a team that has gone through this," Blake Griffin said. "I remember Saturday morning, when everything had hit, you could see certain players that were really emotionally about the situation. This was the first day, and it got bigger. At the point when we had the meeting, it was a huge thing, but it just grew and grew and grew with each day and each hour, honestly, and it just wore on guys. We tried to put it off to the side, but it's impossible."

Rivers took the brunt of the attention and questions when the story broke. The team had decided collectively that he would be its voice during the controversy and lead them through the unknown as best as he possibly could while they tried to focus on basketball. Over the next six days, however, Rivers became much more than the team's head coach and general manager, he became the leader of a franchise in desperate need of leadership.

He drove to meet and comfort team employees in tears at the team's downtown offices Friday and kept his office door open at the team's training facility like a counselor for anyone needing to talk. His leadership hasn't gone unnoticed by the league, which is currently searching for an interim CEO and will be consulting Rivers during the process.

Rivers was hired last June to help lead the Clippers to a championship, but in many ways, his ability to lead the team through one of the most turbulent weeks any team has ever gone through was just as important.

"Honestly, I don't think you could handle it any better," Jamal Crawford said. "There are so many emotions, and you're coaching a team with 14 guys with different opinions, and getting everyone to buy in and believe is special, and he does that all the time."

Before their first practice of training camp in San Diego, Rivers gathered his players together and handed each one a piece paper with the map of Downtown L.A. on it.

As they looked down at the map, Rivers told them to pick their championship parade route.

The Clippers have never won a championship before and therefore have never had a parade, so they could choose their own route.

Some coaches are afraid to talk about winning championships that early in the process. For Rivers, there's no point in even starting the process unless you're willing to talk about what it's for.

"I did that right away -- you have to," Rivers said. "I just think you have to have a destination. It just can't be a journey. I don't get that. Where are you going? If you're on a journey, you know where you're going. I have never felt like that made any sense, so every year our team has to have a destination."

After everything the Clippers had gone through over the past week, none of the players were ready to drive to the team's training facility on Sunday for exit interviews. This season might not end in a championship, but there was no way they could have the hardest week many of them had ever gone through in their lives culminate with a season-ending loss.

"Our team is very tight, and we have a team group text where it's just our entire team," Chris Paul said. "Last night, guys were texting that this can't be over. It's not time for this to be over. We just felt in the timeouts and at halftime, we just knew it wasn't time for our season to be over."

Some Clippers players had already begun smiling when Darren Collison walked to the free throw line with two seconds left and the Clippers up by three points, but when they saw Rivers let his emotions out, they began celebrating as if they had won a title. Even Rivers admits he probably celebrated Saturday's win on the sideline more than he did the NBA title he won with Boston in 2008.

"[Doc] of all people has probably been through the most," Griffin said. "He really had to deal with it the first couple of days when we as a team decided not to really speak on it. He was the guy that everybody was looking to, and he's the leader of our team. Emotionally, I can't imagine what he was going through. You could tell he really had a sense of relief once this was over."

Rivers let out a big sigh as he sat down at the postgame podium and let out another sigh as he left to walk back to his office to be with his family. While he's hoping this is just the beginning of the Clippers' playoff run, the end to the longest week of his professional career couldn't have come fast enough.

"I needed to exhale," Rivers said. "This was a hard week. Was it a week? I don't even know. It felt like two months. It's been hard. It was for me, too. I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer and be proud of something, and I was very proud of my players."

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