The Los Angeles Clippers' postseason has been defined by adversity. First, in the form of racist comments from their meddlesome owner that threatened to fracture the locker room, followed by a Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors and then a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit, down 2-1, to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
These Clippers just keep fighting through it all.
Darren Collison hit two clutch layups in the final minute and Russell Westbrook's game-winning three-point attempt rimmed out as the Clippers defeated Oklahoma City, 101-99, in one of the more improbable comebacks in recent NBA playoffs history.
From the opening tip, it looked almost predestined the Thunder would take a 3-1 series lead heading back home. They raced out to a 17-3 lead in the game's opening minutes and kept Los Angeles at arm's length throughout, never leading by less than five and most of the time by double digits. A Reggie Jackson jumper with 9:18 remaining gave Oklahoma City an 82-66 lead—seemingly insurmountable given its success on both ends of the floor.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Collison weren't ready to roll over. Paul blew past the Thunder defense time and again on pick-and-rolls for shots near the basket, and in a move that will forever go on his playoff resume, began checking Kevin Durant on the other end.
Durant had 40 points and some success against Paul, but the move helped stagnate the Thunder offense. They ran a series of plays designed to get Durant the ball in the high post, which slowed the flow and left Oklahoma City players ball-watching—allowing the Clippers to get out in transition on missed attempts.
In the wake of Jackson's basket, the Clippers went on a 28-12 run that culminated in a Griffin free throw to tie the game at 94-94 with less than two minutes remaining. A Jamal Crawford three gave the Clippers their first lead of the contest with 1:23 left and the Collison layups helped seal the deal.
The win evens the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals series at 2-2. The two teams head back to Oklahoma City for Game 5 on Tuesday—a welcome return home for a Thunder team looking to recapture any semblance of momentum.
If anything, they can take solace in the fact they were the far better team for most of Sunday afternoon. They held Los Angeles to a 3-of-21 performance from beyond the three-point line, which is a problem Doc Rivers needs to fix immediately.
Equipped with arguably the league's deepest stable of bench wing players, the Clippers have not made more than a third of their threes since their Game 1 win in Oklahoma City. Matt Barnes missed all six of his shot attempts, while J.J. Redick wasn't much better in a six-point performance. It was Collison and Crawford who replaced the two struggling starters during the fourth-quarter run, and both guys finished with 18 points.
That lineup probably won't work over the long term—there is not enough defense on the floor—but one has to wonder whether Barnes at least has outlived his usefulness.
Durant's shot was not falling from long range, so he broke out his ever-improving off-the-dribble game to blitz the Clippers defense. Durant, who has gone for 30-plus points in five of his last six games, went to the foul line 18 times, making all but three.
Although he's a matchup problem for every team, Durant's all-out assault on the Clippers defense highlights their lack of an elite perimeter stopper. Barnes, at age 34, no longer has the lateral quickness to get the job done, but their other options are minimal. In Barnes' stints on the bench, Doc Rivers threw Redick, Griffin and nearly everyone on his roster Durant's way to little avail. Only when the 6-foot Paul took the assignment did Durant's momentum slow down in the slightest.
Sunday was the reigning MVP's first 40-point game of the postseason.
These are issues the Thunder exposed during the regular season. And when Los Angeles collapsed its defense around Durant, Oklahoma City would just swing it over to Westbrook, who was again excellent despite the missed game-winner.
The polarizing guard, so criticized during the Thunder's first-round series against Memphis, is in the midst of the finest stretch of his young career. Engaged on both ends of the floor, Westbrook pushed Paul to the limit and had 27 points, eight assists and six rebounds.
These games have served to quiet concerns about whether Westbrook and Durant could coexist to form a championship pairing. That criticism largely targeted Westbrook, whose aggression and self-confidence can sometimes manifest in the form of ill-timed jumpers and missed defensive rotations. Durant has been consistently supportive of his teammate—most notably in his MVP speech—but this version of Westbrook is decidedly different than the version we saw in the Memphis series.
"I got into a rhythm and I'm trying to get into a routine," Westbrook told reporters before Game 3, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. "I'm trying to balance my game and it's tough at times, but as long as we are winning it's all good."
The Clippers were the beneficiaries of more intermittent success from their "Big Two," but it came at critical moments. Paul spurred the Clippers run that brought them back into the game in the second quarter and was again a fiery leader in the fourth. In between was far less consistent, and Paul's prolonged hot streak from three-point land that began in Game 1 also came to an end.
Of course, shooting numbers don't tell the whole story.
Paul's 10 assists may have doubled had Clippers wing players knocked down shots they were accustomed to making during the regular season. He also slid over onto Durant defensively in the fourth quarter, a move made even more impressive by the fact he's been guarding Westbrook for most of the series. The narrative of Paul's playoff struggles has been long overblown, and if the Clippers aren't able to advance, his play against the Thunder will be a microcosm.
Griffin, who scored 34 points and was at times the best player on the floor in Game 3, dealt with foul trouble and an engaged Serge Ibaka most of the afternoon. He played most of his second-half minutes with five fouls after Nick Collison drew a charge with more than three minutes left in the third quarter. Nonetheless, Griffin managed to score 10 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter without fouling out.
With Paul, Griffin and role players coming through down the stretch, the Thunder needed an answer. They didn't get one. Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler were only moderately effective, while Ibaka exhausted most of his energy locking down Griffin on the defensive end. The Thunder bench was outscored, 40-19.
That said, there were a ton of positives to build on for both sides. The Clippers still cannot stop Westbrook or Durant, while one has to assume L.A.'s three-point shooting will only improve.
Neither side came in thinking this would be an easy out. The Clippers' comeback Sunday proved that to be true.
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