This past weekend, my Dad, brother and I flew down to LA in order to see some basketball games. Many people may consider this a strange way to spend a weekend, but when your home town had its team brutally ripped away by the brutal, ogrish owner – well, you do what you have to in order to see a game. Thankfully we ended up picking two pretty incredible games to go to. Here is how it all went down:
Day 1 – Land in LA, wander around various (rich) parts of the city and take in a nice dinner. Coming from Vancouver the most shocking thing is the fact it is genuinely warm (upwards of 30 degrees C) and that shorts are, in fact, required and not a symbol of someone’s fortitude in mid January. All in all, a pretty good start to the trip.
Day 2 – Turning on the TV early in the morning, we are shocked to discover that ESPN’s College Gameday is in fact, at UCLA! The atmosphere (at 8 in the morning) already seems crazy there, I am now incredibly excited. This could turn out to be one of those epic crowd experiences where literally anything can happen: one of those nights where it completely justifies all your irrational love of sports and all the hours you spend talking and thinking about teams, games and players. After walking around the UCLA Campus for an hour or so, my brother, Just Ross decides that he should have gone to a US university. Canadian higher learning institutions simply do not compare to the experience. He will spend the rest of the trip talking himself into taking an MBA at an American school.
For the game, our seats are directly above the student section. There are posters and Bill Walton wigs and generally craziness. Anything less than an absolutely epic game will be a complete failure. At the outset of the game we quickly learn they are going to be honoring the 1973 Tournament Title Team at Halftime – yes, Bill Walton is in the house!
My brother spots Bill Walton, and then four members of the LA Clippers who we are going to see the next day! Blake Griffin, Chauncey Billups, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan are all in attendance. We snap a lot of cell phone pictures and manage to capture them paying homage to the legendary Walton (truly some things have to be seen and not described in a subpar Sports Blog, but thanks for sticking with me anyways!).
The game meanwhile, somehow lives up to expectations – because the crowd wills UCLA to a win. The atmosphere is absolutely crazy. Tonight easily ranks among my top stadium experiences ever (up there with Canucks v. Blackhawks in the 2011 Playoffs; Switzerland v. USA in the World Juniors and the opening game of the Vancouver Grizzlies where they pulled out a ridiculous OT win) and there is an undercurrent of “will they storm the court or not?” With five minutes left, that question is answered once and for all when security and ushers (including one particularly elder fellow) ring the lower bowl in anticipation of a court storming. If it happens, it will be ugly (they even get rid of the Clips and Walton before the game ends) but by the end of the incredibly close game the roof seems likely to blow off. A couple of thoughts:
1) Shabazz Mohammed is really good, even on a sprained ankle – He looked a bit thicker than we expected, but he was a beast inside.
2) We saw one of the hardest dunks ever – A UCLA player absolutely destroyed a Zona player attempting to take a charge. Huge. Even had the couple of seconds of standing over him. Super hard dunk that brought the house down and set the tone for the much lower ranked UCLA.
A few times in my life I have seen the crowd change the outcome of a game and this was one of those times. Absolutely incredible inside the Pauley Pavilion. My second trip and definitely not my last. Also good to see Jalen, the gameday crew and the bus outside the arena. Do not see day college games, see the marquee night matchups because the intensity notches up that much higher.
Day 3 – Now we get to head down to the Staples Center for the Clips and Thunder. We are basically sitting courtside and will be on TV for the next three hours. Sweet. At the outset of this game it seemed like our luck was going to run out, and OKC would come in and blow out the Clips. Little did we know that three hours later we would be on our feet for the final five minutes of the game and getting stared down by a should have been tossed Serge Ibaka.
The first quarter belonged to Russell Westbrook – the man was absolutely unstoppable. He could get to the rim, hit his floater in traffic and drop the ball down to the open man. The worst move coach Scotty Brooks made was taking him out and cooling him off. Anyways, the other big story of the first half was foul trouble for the Clips (Blake, Odom and DeAndre all got into trouble leading to big minutes for Ronny Turiaf) and the fact I am pretty sure Cliff Paul and not Chris was playing for the team in the first half. Paul was brutal in the opening 24. He had 4 points and 4 assists at half. The team was down and there was no chance they were coming back. Just Ross and my dad were certain it was going to be OKC running wild.
Then Matt Barnes and Chris Paul showed up.
The story of the second half was the Clips moving the ball around like it was on fire and throwing it down like OKC was not even there. Blake and DeAndre threw some huge dunks down and the team started to shoot the lights out. The score crept closer and closer and closer. With each passing possession the Clips seemed to become increasingly confident while OKC seemed to be missing James Harden more and more. At this point I should also make it clear that the refereeing in this game was atrocious. David Stern should use the calls for a segment he shows all the refs entitled “how to hand a game to one team and absolutely rob the other team.” The amount of fouls were staggering and even some of the inbound calls were dubious. And then we came of course, to the nut punch that changed the outcome.
The second half belonged to Chris Paul. He showed why he is widely considered the best point guard in the game. He slowed it down to exactly where he wanted the tempo and then dominated. He got to the rim, hit threes and made every member of the Clips better. I am glad Cliff decided to stay in the locker room for the second half.
And now about that nut punch:
Serge Ibaka should have been tossed from this game without question. When the punch happened no one could really see what went down because of the angle on the floor and how quickly Blake was rolling around in agony. Here is what happened inside the arena:
1) A scramble around the basket leads to Griffin falling on the floor. Every man in attendance knows immediately what has happened – you only go down and stay down like that for one reason only.
2) It is unclear what has happened until they show the video replay. You can make all kind of Serge-centric arguments that you want but, he smacked Blake Griffin in the nuts. Clearly. The crowd turns on him as one, screaming “toss him out! toss him out!”. There is an incredibly long sequence where it becomes genuinely possible that we may see someone kick Kendrick Perkins ass. The refs absolutely have to call this a flagrant two. Ibaka punched him in the nuts and the ball was nowhere near them and the chop was aimed only one place.
3) Ibaka walks to the scorers table and stares defiantly into the screaming crowd. He is looking right at me and my brother. He puts his hands on his hips and just stares angrily at the crowd soaking in their venom like a Bond villain. Unreal moment.
4) Okay, now the refs will clearly toss him, here we go! This is the final turning point for the Clips, Ibaka is…NOT OUT. What? Are you kidding me? This is one of the most ridiculous blown calls in the history of the game. Clips fans are out of their minds. I have a sinking feeling this may come back to haunt them…
Griffin fouls out on one of the worst calls of the game. Ticky tacky and not right. Turns the game after the Clips have taken the lead on back to back Barnes 3 pointers. In the final seconds Ibaka makes one of the best blocks I have ever seen. Huge moment from a player that should have been long out of the game. Give Ibaka credit, he soaked in more hatred than I have ever seen one player not named Patrick Kane take and then performed when it mattered most. That is exactly what champions do, even if they have a nut punch or two on their resume.
KD hits two free throws – game over.
We left having seen exactly what we wanted from the game: dunks, blocks, a Clips rally, a great Westbrook v. Paul game, Durant being clutch, Perkins mean mugging and the reasons that these are two of the best teams in a deep Western Conference. Aside from the awful refing this was awesome.
Three days in LA and two incredible games, what more could a former Vancouver Grizzlies fan want? Except of course a team to call his own.