By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Mar 23 2009 4:10PM
Four years of college couldn't prepare Clippers forward Al Thornton for this. Exhausted and humiliated after a 28-point home loss to the perennially powerful San Antonio Spurs, on a night when the Clippers used their 26th different starting lineup of the season, Thornton was chewed out in the locker room.
Not by a teammate.
Not by a coach.
But by the owner of his team, Donald Sterling.
Sterling reportedly called Thornton the most selfish player he has ever seen. He lit into the whole team, threatening to trade every player on the roster.
"I don't think anybody can prepare for anything like that," Thornton says weeks after the March 2 incident. "That was the first time the owner came in here and that type of situation happened to me. It shows you that he cares and he wants to win, that's the bottom line. Some of the things he said I wouldn't agree with, but it shows he wants to win. He wants to be competitive."
Whether Sterling's rant was misguided or not -- particularly the bit directed at Thornton, the Clippers' second-leading scorer (17.1 points per game) and their most durable player -- is beside the point. Thornton got the message.
In the first seven games after being put on blast, Thornton played like a man possessed. He used every inch of his 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame to careen all the way to the hoop, forgoing the awkward midrange fadeaways and leaners, the one unsightly part of this game that still needed work after a full hoops matriculation at Florida State.
"The part about this and the part about the game for Al that's been so strong is that he is no longer settling," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "He's aggressive to attack and when he gets into the paint and raises up, he just jumps over everybody."
Dunleavy hears worse criticism levied his way every Clippers home game than Thornton received from Sterling -- a "Fire Dunleavy" chant echoes throughout Staples Center about as often as Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." plays over the P.A. system -- but Thornton credits Dunleavy for getting him to take the game from an analytical approach.
"I look at the game more from a coach's perspective now than I did at Florida State, in terms of trying to pick out schemes and trying to see it before it happens," Thornton says. "[Dunleavy's] a very smart coach, very intelligent. He studies so much. He might watch more film than any other coach in the league. He knows, play by play, what teams run. He knows everything. I get it from him."
Before Thornton hurt his right shoulder in L.A.'s loss in Detroit on Friday, he had averaged 21.8 points on 62.5 percent shooting and 7.5 rebounds per game after the locker room tirade.
"Being in that attack mode, getting to the rim, finishing strong and getting to the free-throw line -- when you do those types of things, your numbers are going to be in the 20s," Dunleavy said. "That's what [Thornton's] been doing. He's really mixed up his game well between attacking the rim, pulling up for jumpers and being in the position to post up as well."
Thornton's shoulder has him listed at day-to-day, but he sees the value in making a quick recovery even if the Clippers are a lowly 17-53 and the playoffs are out of the question. He's missed only 10 games since entering the league last season.
"We can use this is a starting ground to try to get ready for next year," Thornton says. "I'm assuming that the majority of the players will be here next year, so you just use this and try to get better for next year and build some momentum up. That's all we can do."
If Sterling's biting words about Thornton's play sparked the No. 14 pick in the 2007 Draft to turn it up a notch, the threat of overhauling the roster apparently didn't sink in. With a healthy group returning next year, a top draft pick added to the mix and Thornton continuing to raise his game, there actually is hope on the horizon for the team whose owner nearly disowned.
"Where I want to see myself, I want to be one of the all-time best players in this league when it's all said and done," Thornton said. "Point blank."
As rare as it is for a college senior to be drafted in the first round these days, rarer still is a 25-year-old who puts his head down and decides to get better for his own good after receiving undue criticism. But that's the type of rare that's needed when it comes to lifting the Clippers -- a team that has made just four trips to the postseason in the last 32 seasons -- back to respectability.
That's a task that Thornton is prepared to handle.
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