Six games, four days, one building
The ups and downs of playoff games at the weekend's busiest sports arena
LOS ANGELES -- "So what do you think?" the Staples Center employee asked me as I walked down one of the arena's back corridors Saturday.
I didn't know if he was talking about the Clippers game that just ended or the Lakers game that was coming up next. If there was one thing this wild stretch of six playoff games in four days at Staples Center demanded, it was specificity. Referencing "the game" wouldn't cut it.
From Kings to Lakers to Clippers to Lakers to Kings to Clippers, the arena shifted playing surfaces and fan bases in an unprecedented weekend of playoff games. The longer it went, the more I realized it wasn't about the physical alterations; it was about the emotional swings.
There's something about the power of the collective mood generated by 19,000 people. I've seen it push teams to victories and I've felt it multiply heartbreak exponentially.
The emotions undulated throughout the week. An "uh-oh" when the Phoenix Coyotes got the first goal against the Kings on Thursday night. Jubilation when Anze Kopitar matched it on a breakaway just two minutes later. And after the go-ahead goal Dwight King, there was a giddiness as the minutes ticked away in the third period and Kings fans realized this was actually happening: Their team was about to be one win away from the Stanley Cup finals.
In some ways Kings fans have it worse than anyone in the region. Their team's identity isn't based on a history of losing (like, say, the Clippers), but they haven't won anything. Worst of all, they had to watch as an expansion team named after a Disney movie win a Stanley Cup. Compared to the Anaheim Ducks, the Kings are practically an Original Six team, with two of the top four goal scorers in NHL history (Wayne Gretzky and Marcel Dionne) among their set of retired jerseys. Yet they have an empty trophy case. So you could feel the frenzy building as they left Staples, some waving inflatable grey replicas of the Stanley Cup. One overboard fan even wrote "Kings" on the padded wall of an elevator in the Ritz-Carlton across the street.
Lakers fans, of course, are accustomed to winning, perhaps even irrationally so. They hadn't abandoned their team after the Oklahoma City Thunder won the first two games of the series. Enough of them remembered the time the Lakers won the middle two games at home to extend the series after the San Antonio Spurs went up 2-0 in 2003, and then did one better by coming from 2-0 down to beat the Spurs in 2004.
After the Lakers won Friday night and were up by double digits in the fourth quarter of Game 4, on Saturday night it felt as if order had been restored in Lakerland. The fans showered Metta World Peace with love for everything he did to preserve the Lakers' lead. His relationship with the fans has undergone a greater upward transformation than any Laker since the team moved into Staples Center in 1999. During his first season in L.A. the fans came to be horrified whenever he shot, even if it was a layup. But after hitting that 3-pointer in Game 7 against the Celtics there's always a sense of anticipation when he shoots, even if the stats say there's a better than six in 10 chance that he'll miss.
You know what's also likely to miss these days? A Kobe Bryant fourth-quarter shot. He missed eight of nine at one point in the fourth quarter of Game 4, while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were conspiring to snatch the game from the Lakers. That left the waning seconds to be played out in a silence that rivaled a practice gym. By the time Bryant made a jumper at the buzzer that did nothing to alter the outcome of the game the fans had no more incentive to cheer.
The Lakers were down 3-1 in the series and the Staples Center home teams had suddenly started a losing streak, with this loss coming on the heels of the Clippers' historic blown lead against the Spurs earlier in the day.
The Clippers were up by 22 points at the end of the first quarter and led by 24 three minutes into the second. This was going to be their ticket back into the series. If nothing else they had a chance to win these back-to-back games and force yet another work night in Staples Center: a Game 6 next Friday.
But the Spurs weren't having it. Not only did they come back, they took such control of the game it would have required a miraculous comeback from the Clippers to win it. Talk about leaving no doubt. The joy of the opening quarter was replaced by a somber realization that these are the Clippers and the Spurs, and each team has its respective place in the NBA.
That turned the finales to the weekend into polar opposites for the home teams. The Kings hoped to close out the Coyotes; the Clippers wanted to extend their season. Their fates were linked by the network television-based decision to have the Kings play first, at noon PT. With the full-period, unlimited overtimes in playoff hockey, an extended tie game could have led to a delayed start or even a postponement of the Spurs-Clippers game scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. PT.
With such a vested interest, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spent the afternoon before his NBA playoff game watching an NHL playoff game.
"I had no idea what was going on, but I watched it," Popovich said.
If Popovich didn't know who Shane Doan was before Sunday, he sure does now. Doan, the Coyotes' captain, was everywhere on the ice. He scored the game's only two goals and also picked up two penalties. Generally, he made sure the Kings' celebration would have to take place another day. But at least he guaranteed an on-time start for the Clippers.
Kings fans had started the day with the anticipation of witnessing the team's first trip to the Cup finals since the Gretzky days in 1993.
And it seemed inevitable the way the Kings had the early edge in shots on goal. But then Doan struck first, and you realized that the Kings are not necessarily the superior team; they've just been playing better hockey. Thanks to goaltender Jonathan Quick, they've been winning. It doesn't mean they're supposed to win. They are, after all, the lower-seeded team as are the Clippers and the Lakers, the reason all three were home in the middle weekend of these series in the first place.
There was no happy baton to be passed between lingering Kings fans and arriving Clippers fans at LA Live. If there was any inspiration to be found it would have to be from the Coyotes, who did not use their 3-0 deficit as an invitation to begin their offseason.
The Clippers had a similar mentality, fighting the Spurs to the end but falling to San Antonio's experience and superior execution down the stretch.
The only way to describe the fans' mood in this one was "realistic optimism." There was hope present, but deep down inside no one believed that a Spurs team that had not lost a single game in 5½ weeks was about to lose four times in seven days. Perhaps the Clippers could give them just one more memory in a season filled with them.
And though they couldn't, when the buzzer sounded the fans stood and clapped. The sections near the tunnel where the Clippers left the court roared even loader as the players departed.
This had been the best season ever to be a Clippers fan. They melded the highlights of Blake Griffin with the winning mettle of Chris Paul and became compelling to watch and rewarding to root for. That's why the fans cheered a team that had just been swept.
It's too bad no one paused to applaud all of the fans, some 113,000 of them who provided the energy over the six games. No one gave a standing ovation to the 1,750 employees who put in a combined 55,000 hours of work to make this happen, or the crews who made the changeover five times.
For those of us who were foolish or fortunate to go through this unparalleled run of six playoff games in the same building in four days, the words of Shane Doan as he described why he welcomed the challenge of overcoming a 3-0 series deficit served as a reminder of why it was worth it:
"That's what sports are all about," Doan said. "Trying to do something that hasn't been done before."