But then all hell broke loose.
Down by seven with 49 seconds remaining in the game, Durant hit a three to cut the Clippers' advantage to four. Following a Jamal Crawford miss on the other end, Durant leaked out for a layup to trim L.A.'s lead to just two points with 13 seconds remaining.
Then things got weird.
Chris Paul took a hurried inbounds pass and knew the Thunder had to foul in order to extend the game. As he so often does, Paul anticipated the hack and tried to fire off a three-quarter-court heave. That's a dangerous play under any circumstances, as it puts the onus on the officials to not only call a shooting foul on such a gimmicky attempt, but also to blow the whistle at all.
Paul got no whistle.
CP3 likes to do that, try to shoot from long range when the intentional foul is coming, he tried it here and Westbrook stripped him.— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) May 14, 2014
Westbrook was the one who challenged him in the backcourt, and as Paul tried to let loose a shot from about 75 feet, the ball came free.
A stunned OKC crowd watched as the rock bounced toward center court, where Reggie Jackson scooped it up at a dead run. With only Matt Barnes, the man who'd inbounded to Paul, waiting under the basket, Jackson had a chance to tie the game with a layup.
Better still, Jackson had both Durant and Westbrook streaking to the cup on the left side of the lane. Barnes was stuck in no-man's land, forced to make a decision in a critical three-on-one situation.
Jackson bailed him out, keeping the ball instead of hitting a wide-open Durant for a layup. As Barnes reached in, he got equal parts hand and ball, causing Jackson to lose the rock out of bounds on the baseline.
As was the case with Paul, there was no foul called. Forced to review the play, the officials convened and drank in a replay that seemed to show Jackson touching the ball last.
It also showed a pretty clear foul on Barnes, but that aspect of the play wasn't subject to review. Perhaps in a conciliatory gesture, the referees determined it was OKC's ball—to the utter disbelief of head coach Doc Rivers, who was completely incensed.
Doc Rivers tells ref Tom Washington: "That was you. That was our ball."— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) May 14, 2014
When the Thunder inbounded underneath the Clippers' basket, they trailed by just two points and had 11 seconds to work with.
Russell Westbrook, the only reason OKC was even in the game for much of the first three and a half quarters, took the pass in the left corner and circled out toward the top. The Thunder ran some typically ineffectual off-ball action on the weak side, leaving Westbrook with few options.
Of the limited choices at his disposal, though, Westbrook picked the worst one.
Crouching low and weaving back and forth like a snake ready to strike, he sized up Paul, his defender. And then, instead of attacking the lane, Westbrook rose up and flung a contested three toward the rim with six ticks remaining on the clock.
It was a little too contested, and this time the whistle rang out, piercing the air and the Clippers' collective hearts.
Westbrook would shoot three free throws—deservedly, I might add.
Paul clearly committed the most heinous of subtle fouls, the gentle "shark bite" to Westbrook's shooting elbow. He applied almost no pressure, but it was more than enough to disrupt the shot.
Calmly stepping to the stripe, Westbrook buried all three, putting OKC up by a single point and giving the Clippers a chance to win with six seconds remaining.
In an appropriate finish to a nightmarish final sequence, Paul lost control of the ball as he drove hard to his right. Serge Ibaka came up with the rock and the wildest finish in recent postseason history was in the books.
"That don't matter. We shouldn't have been in that situation." - Chris Paul on the replay call with 11.3 seconds left. #LACvsOKC— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 14, 2014
After the game, Paul was visibly distraught.
"The toughest thing I’ve been through basketball wise. Everything that happened at the end was on me.” Chris Paul— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 14, 2014
In An Alternate Universe
All that happened in 49 fateful seconds, and the chaotic conclusion, will undoubtedly overshadow the first 47 minutes and 11 seconds of the contest. That's great news for the Thunder, who have the series lead and two chances to close things out.
It's even better news for Durant, who would have had to hear about his 3-of-17 start from the field. True, his late burst was integral to OKC pulling close enough to engineer its wild comeback. But the league's MVP would have had a hard time living this one down if the outcome had been different.
Scott Brooks should be counting his blessings as well. For most of the game, Twitter served as a firing squad with rifles trained on Brooks' career.
What kind of offense has KD stand around on the wing for entire possessions? Consecutively.— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) May 14, 2014
His substitution patterns drew the ire of everyone watching.
As bad as everyone thinks Scotty Brooks is - he’s worse. I mean I can’t even believe what i am seeing.— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) May 14, 2014
And the Thunder's lack of a functional offense had pushed many observers to the brink.
Whatever the Thunder are calling this offense, is maybe the worst I've ever seen it. Comically bad "execution."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 14, 2014
If you've spent five seconds of an OKC game on any social-media platform, you're well aware of the unanimous animus against Brooks' continued employment. But this was different—his gaffes were going to cost the Thunder a playoff series, and there was a good chance he wouldn't survive the summer if they did.
Nobody dodged a bigger bullet than Brooks.
Struggling For Takeaways
Looking ahead, it's hard to know what this game means for the Thunder.
Westbrook's 38 points certainly proved he could handle primary scoring duties when Durant struggled. And the resilience to close a game with a 17-3 run shows the Thunder are capable of fighting through anything.
Lost in all that was Russell Westbrook hitting the most clutch free throws of his life.— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) May 14, 2014
But really, this was just an exceptionally improbable, bizarre finish that did little more than reinforce a tired Yogi Berra refrain: It's never over 'til it's over.
There'll be no end to the talk of poor officiating—throughout the game and down the stretch. And Brooks will still catch heat whenever he subs out Steven Adams for Kendrick Perkins or fails to draw up a play.
The Thunder have a massive edge in this series now, and even they probably aren't sure how they got it. This isn't the time for them to ask questions, though. OKC must capitalize on its good fortune by finishing the drill.
The Clippers will come out angry in Game 6, led by a highly motivated Paul and a defiant Rivers. This loss is going to stick with them for a long time, and you can bet they'll be out to avenge it.
OKC stole a win in the wildest of fashions. Now, it'll have to win one more game against a Clippers team that has proved its resilience all postseason long. We may not see another finish as exciting as the one on Tuesday, but there'll be no shortage of intensity from here on out.
How the Thunder handle it will likely determine their playoff fate.