The Clippers beat the Thunder 101-99 in Game 4 in Los Angeles on Sunday to even their Western Conference semifinal series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Tuesday in Oklahoma City.
• L.A. mounts a staggering comeback. If their 27-point rally against the Grizzlies in 2012 is the gold standard for Clippers' comebacks, their shocking Game 4 victory over the Thunder stands as an impressive silver. L.A. had absolutely no business winning this game, a fact that coach Doc Rivers readily admitted afterwards.
"We were almost on the mat and now we're back up," he said.
Oklahoma City jumped out to a 17-3 lead, and they led by as many as 22 points in the first quarter. Even though the Clippers whittled away at that margin over the next 24 minutes, the Thunder still entered the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead, and they were enjoying what would become a 40-point, seven-rebound, three-assist night from Kevin Durant. The reigning MVP scored five points in the first two minutes of the final period, and this one seemed headed for garbage time, with the Staples Center crowd fully neutralized.
Instead, the Clippers took off thanks to a strange, small ball lineup that included two point guards, Chris Paul and Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford and the super-undersized Danny Granger/Blake Griffin interior combination. To further up the chaos factor, Rivers assigned Paul to Durant on defense, while sending extra help on virtually every touch. The approach seemed to catch both Thunder coach Scott Brooks and Durant off guard. Oklahoma City attempted to post Durant repeatedly, with little success, and Durant committed three bad passes in the fourth quarter that led directly to six Clippers points in transition.
"Kevin was having trouble getting the catches," Brooks admitted. "It was physical out there. We have to do a better job of getting him open, freeing him up."
Durant, meanwhile, wasn't about to credit Paul for any success on defense, especially after the two engaged in multiple staredowns during the game's stretch run.
"When they sent the double team, they did a good job crowding me and making me get rid of the ball," Durant said. "When it's one-on-one, I have the advantage."
The last of Durant's four-quarter turnovers -- he finished with a total of eight on the night -- led to a Collison layup that cut Oklahoma City's lead to just one with less than three minutes to play. A fairly unlikely hero, Collison would score 10 points in the game's final 4:28, including back-to-back layups in the final minutes that put the Clippers ahead for good. He finished with 18 points (on 7-for-12 shooting), a 2014 playoff-high, and seven rebounds off the bench.
"Darren Collison was amazing today," Paul said. "You have to love a guy who plays with so much heart. Game ball goes to Darren Collison."
Certainly, Collison and the Clippers did well to create opportunities for themselves. The grim post-game faces worn by Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with their curt answers to questions, made it clear that they understood they had just blown a golden opportunity to seize control of the series. After starting the game at their best -- with Durant and Westbrook attacking, and the role players filling in nicely -- the Thunder finished the game at their worst, with the offense stalling and the two All-Stars finding themselves simultaneously doing too much and not enough.
"They're seething right now," Rivers said of the Thunder. "They had the opportunity to go up 3-1 and now it's an even series."
A happy Griffin, who finished with 25 points (on 8-for-19 shooting) and nine rebounds, welcomed the comparison to the miracle comeback against the Grizzlies two years ago, especially considering the series-altering implications of L.A.'s win.
"This is up right there with it," he said. "3-1 and 2-2 is a huge difference."
• Serge Ibaka delivers another low blow. This was yet another physical, tense game in a physical, tense series, and a total of four technical fouls were handed out on the night. The headline-drawing incident, however, didn't even produce a whistle.
Less than one minute into the game, Kendrick Perkins pushed Ibaka towards Griffin as the Clippers forward attempted a layup in the paint. Falling forward, Ibaka's right hand made contact with Grifffin's groin, causing Griffin to double over as he came back to the ground. No foul -- common, technical, or flagrant -- was called, and Oklahoma City cleared the defensive rebound. The low blow came directly after Griffin's right hand appeared to make light contact with Ibaka's groin as he cleared space on the drive, although it didn't appear retaliatory.
"I don't know, I can't get into his head," Griffin said, when asked if he thought Ibaka's low blow was intentional. "I'm not going to try."
In April 2013, Ibaka was fined $25,000 for delivering a vicious, intentional low blow to Griffin. That low blow, as well as Sunday's low blow, can be seen in the video above.
Yahoo Sports reports that Ibaka said the contact was accidental and that the NBA plans to investigate the play. Remember, the NBA suspended Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph for Game 7 of a first-round series against the Thunder after the league office concluded he had punched Steven Adams.
In this case, Ibaka's explanation seems reasonable. There was no wind-up, the force of the contact wasn't great, and Perkins' action clearly influenced Ibaka's motion, as Ibaka was moving backwards out of the play before Perkins intervened. There would seem to be no need to issue a fine or a suspension on this one, even with the looming history between the two players.
• The not-so-great escape. L.A. did many things right to climb back into Game 4, but their execution in the game's final 30 seconds was unsophisticated enough that they were forced to dodge a buzzer-beating bullet.
Holding a two-point lead with roughly 20 seconds remaining, the Clippers brought the ball up the court with roughly three seconds separating the shot clock and the game clock. Surprisingly, the Thunder elected not to foul, which would have forced the Clippers to sink a pair of free throws while also creating the possibility for another possession or two. Once Oklahoma City made the decision to play defense -- was that a bold gambit or a brain fart? -- L.A.'s optimal strategy couldn't have been clearer: 1) use up absolutely every possible second of the shot clock, 2) scramble for the offensive rebound if the shot missed, and 3) prevent any last-second leak outs. Oklahoma City was out of timeouts so using the clock was clearly the top priority.
Given the Clippers' small lineup, an ideal play would have had Paul or Crawford milk the clock all the way down before shooting from the top of the key. That way, the guard could keep a clear eye on the shot clock, freeing up Griffin and Granger to crash the boards and use up even more time. Instead, Paul passed out of a double team to Collison, who attacked the paint and then fed Griffin near the free throw line with seven seconds left on the shot clock. Griffin attacked the hoop and threw up a contested shot, which missed, and he was unable to collect the offensive rebound in a crowd of four Thunder players. Only the 6-foot Collison was nearby to help make a play on the rebound, and Ibaka controlled the ball with roughly seven seconds left on the game clock for Oklahoma City.
"I didn't know exactly what the shot clock was at," Griffin said. "I wasn't really sure, I knew I didn't want to get a shot clock violation, set and take the ball out. I probably rushed it a little bit. It's my fault. I'll hopefully learn from it."
Here, the Clippers totally struck out: they failed to score, they failed to create a rebounding scrum and they failed ot use the clock well. They also, as it turned out, failed to cover Oklahoma City very well in the ensuing transition opportunity.
It goes without saying that the Thunder really could have used a timeout in this situation, but they nevertheless found themselves with plenty of time to get a game-tying or game-winning look. Ibaka fed Westbrook, who pushed the ball up the court and pulled up to shoot from roughly two steps beyond the arc, launching over Collison with a completely clean look at the rim. This wasn't the greatest development, considering Westbrook's 31.8 percent three-point shooting on the year, but it was far better than a half-court heave, or the game ending in a rebounding scrum, or any of the other most likely eventualities had the Clippers played the clock correctly.
Fortunately for the Clippers, Westbrook's shot rimmed out, otherwise they would have been going back to the Chesapeake Energy Arena down 3-1 for a do-or-die Game 5.
"I thought it was a good look, it just didn't go in," Westbrook said.
L.A. should consider itself very, very fortunate that all of their hard work didn't go to waste.