Clippers finally get a capacity crowd for Game 6 vs. Jazz

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So long, cardboard cutouts. A chance at history deserved these full-throated cheers.

Three days after California reopened amid the pandemic, Staples Center was rocking at full capacity for the first time in 15 months as the Clippers hosted a sell-out crowd for Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. With the Clippers on the cusp of advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time, fans eagerly packed the arena shoulder to shoulder for a chance to watch their tortured franchise exorcise its postseason demons.

“Round two, we have to get past it, it’s time,” said Michele Elmido. “It’s ongoing for years now. Even when it was [Blake] Griffin and [Chris] Paul, there was always something, so I feel like it’s their time, it’s their turn.”

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For Steve Rice, who cheered for the team since the 1980s, this is the franchise’s best team ever. It’s the way the pieces fit together around two stars with Southern California roots. It’s not about ego. It’s about the players’ desire to want to be Clippers.

“For us, that’s huge,” Rice said. “It’s not just someone who came here for only one particular reason like hey, I’m going to be in a contract year, then move on. It’s huge for us that these guys want to be here and we root for that.”

Rice inherited his love of the Clippers from his grandfather, a Minnesota native who turned on the Lakers when they bolted to L.A. He remembers attending games in Anaheim when they were relocated because of rioting in 1992. He waved a white towel in the crowd.

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Fans cheer on the Clippers during Game 6 against the Jazz on Friday night, the first capacity crowd at Staples Center since the pandemic began.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

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Friday’s sell-out featured blue T-shirts reading “playoffs our way” draped over each seat. Fans used paper fans as noisemakers and waved LED bracelets in the air as starting lineups were announced. The crowd booed when the Jazz ran onto the court and jeered star guard Donovan Mitchell with chants of “overrated” as he shot free throws.

Rice was wearing a Paul George jersey and a black and yellow California license plate around his neck that read “Clips ship.” He took it off his car the same way that Bilik unscrewed his front plate that reads “LA R Way.” The plate from Bilik’s wife’s car went to his son Boston.

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Bilik and Rice were digital fans in the NBA’s bubble, sat among cardboard cutouts in a half-full Staples Center before restrictions ended and traveled to playoff games. Even when the crowd was capped at a few thousand, though, it sounded full, Bilik said, especially during the Clippers’ Game 4 win over the Jazz last Saturday.

Bilik was hoping for the same energy Friday as the Clippers attempted to make history. The car ride from Castaic was so anxiety-inducing that they could barely speak. Just one win away from uncharted territory.

“I might cry tonight,” Bilik said.

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But it’s only the first step toward more, Bilik added. The goal should still be winning an NBA championship. He believes this team can do it.

A fan holds up a sign supporting the Clippers.

A fan holds up a sign supporting the Clippers during a Clippers-Jazz playoff game in a packed Staples Center on Friday night.

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(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Roman Aguilar agrees. He feels that there’s something different about this team.

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The Clippers usually crumble when things get hard, he said. This team has heart though, coming back from a 0-2 deficit against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round and knocking off the Jazz in Utah in Game 5 without Kawhi Leonard.

After a relationship best described as a “love-hate situation,” Aguilar described that win as the highlight of his Clippers fandom so far.

With his wife and five kids Friday, Aguilar was eager to reach another high point along with his beloved team.

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“It’s a little struggle when you’re on the bottom,” Aguilar said, “but once they start winning, you grow with them.”

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