LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It was not pretty but the Los Angeles Clippers somehow found a way to launch their 2014-15 season under new owner Steve Ballmer with a scrappy 93-90 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday.
With former owner Donald Sterling a relic of the past after he was banned for life by the NBA over a racism scandal, the Clippers overcame a poor shooting performance with some gritty defense to stave off a late Thunder fightback.
Forward Blake Griffin, who came up with two crucial free throws down the stretch, ended up with a team-high 23 points and point guard Chris Paul weighed in with 22 as the Clippers won despite shooting just 39 percent from the field.
Perry Jones led the way with 32 points for the Thunder, who were without Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant after he broke a bone in his right foot during the pre-season and guard Russell Westbrook for the entire second half due to a hand injury.
“I walked in the locker room and I said, ‘Guys, we won but we didn’t play well.’ I think everybody missed wide open shots,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters after his team had prevailed after five lead changes at Staples Center.
”What I was proud of, though, was that they kept fighting defensively. I don’t know if we would have won this game last year, definitely not early in the season because our defense wasn’t ready.
“Tonight, we got stops when we needed to, we held them to 90 points. Our offense just wasn’t working tonight but I liked the shots that we got. I just didn’t like our tempo offensively.”
One of the happiest men after the hard-fought win at the downtown Los Angeles venue was former Microsoft chief executive Ballmer, who watched the game from a seat behind the hoop to the right of the Clippers bench.
Wearing a checked shirt and khaki slacks, Ballmer was hunched forward most of the time and continually cupped his hands round his mouth as he shouted words of encouragement to his players.
“You definitely hear him when you are out on the court,” Clippers reserve Jamal Crawford told Reuters about Ballmer after scoring 16 points on five-of 15 shooting.
“He’s unbelievable. I think he will be good, not only for the city of LA but also for the NBA in general. He’s such a big basketball fan, he’s so passionate and he will be that way throughout the season.”
Last season, the Clippers were beaten 4-2 by the Thunder in the Western Conference semi-finals, their playoff run ending just weeks after racist comments made by Sterling surfaced, sparking public outrage and causing team sponsors to quit.
Following protracted legal wrangling, a California appeals court rejected Sterling’s last-ditch attempt to block the sale of the Clippers to Ballmer for a record $2 billion, and the 58-year-old tech billionaire took over as the new owner in August.
Known for his high-energy approach to life, Ballmer has made no secret of his desire to see the Clippers go as deep as possible into the postseason, and a new mantra ‘Be Relentless’ was repeatedly flashed up on the giant video board on Thursday.
“Now we can just focus on what’s important, and that’s being the best team and the best organization we can be,” Crawford said of the new era now under way for the Clippers with Sterling a fading, if still bitter, memory.
“Obviously we have taken steps in the right direction. Now the season is here and the hard work starts but the fun is here as well.”
Editing by John O'Brien