The Oklahoma City Thunder trailed early but closed out the Los Angeles Clippers in their second-round 2014 NBA playoff series on Thursday, winning Game 6 at the Staples Center, 104-98, to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Oklahoma City erased a 16-point first-half deficit and tied the game at 72 to end the third quarter, setting the stage for a dramatic finish over the final 12 minutes that wound up falling in the Thunder's favor.
ESPN Stats & Info alluded to how the victors hadn't dropped a playoff series when leading 3-2 before:
Thunder have never lost a series when leading 3-2 since moving to Oklahoma City.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2014
Kevin Durant certainly played like the league's Most Valuable Player after a sluggish start, and Russell Westbrook was unselfish and got his own scoring going after failing to make a field goal in the first half. That was enough to drive the Thunder to within four wins of a trip to the NBA Finals.
Durant led all scorers with 39 points, adding 16 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, while Westbrook added 19 points and dished out 12 assists. One massive advantage the Thunder enjoyed was a big edge from the charity stripe, draining 29-of-33 free-throw attempts, while the Clippers sank just 11-of-20.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted how Durant and Westbrook deviated from coach Scott Brooks' desired offensive strategy—yet it ultimately paid off:
This OKC surge started via sheer star power. Brooks was yelling: "Move the ball!" Then Westbrook and Durant both forced shots--and made 'em.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) May 16, 2014
After the first quarter, it looked as though it would be all Clippers as they seized a 30-16 lead. The Associated Press' Greg Beacham noted how slow of a roll Durant and Westbrook were on for the Thunder:
Clippers lead Thunder 30-16 after a strong defensive 1st quarter for LA. KD is 1-for-7, Westbrook 0-for-4. Griffin with 9, Big Baby with 6.— Greg Beacham (@gregbeacham) May 16, 2014
DailyThunder.com's Royce Young expressed his frustration about the Thunder appearing to lack any sense of urgency in a potential closeout contest:
The Thunder can just be so weak with the ball. They have serious issues just valuing possession. Incredibly frustrating.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 16, 2014
But Durant heated up in the second, drilling three consecutive shots from downtown to cut L.A.'s lead to five after Oklahoma City trailed by 16 in the opening seconds of the quarter. It was a sign of things to come, as the league's premier scorer was not going to be denied for the rest of the evening.
Blake Griffin led the charge for L.A., putting up 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Unfortunately, three late foul calls caused him to foul out with just under 2:30 remaining. A late comeback push proved too little, too late.
Madelyn Burke of LACtv reported what Clippers coach Doc Rivers said afterwards:
Doc: "We're a team in process. I thought we were good enough to win it this year... OKC told us we were not..." #Clippers— Madelyn Burke (@MadelynBurke) May 16, 2014
ESPN personality Skip Bayless thought the pressure was ratcheted up on superstar point guard Chris Paul, given the way he melted down at the end of Game 5:
Chris Paul has ENORMOUS pressure on him tonight to make up for all-time meltdown in final 13 seconds of G5.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 15, 2014
Griffin did what he could to alleviate the pressure CP3 was facing after feeling down for the prior loss, as he told reporters before Game 6:
He was visibly upset, and I told him that game is not on one guy. It's not on him. We made plenty of mistakes down the stretch, plenty of mistakes throughout the game that could ultimately change the outcome. That idea that the game is on him, you understand what he's saying, but it's not on him by any means. We still have two games left to play.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick backed up his support of Paul with a great performance, as Griffin established himself by scoring, crashing the boards and even helping Paul's efforts in distributing. The NBA on ESPN highlighted the exceptional all-around effort from Griffin in the first half:
Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman felt that the Thunder should have been down by more at halftime, given Durant's 4-of-12 shooting and Westbrook being a non-factor due to early foul trouble:
Thunder lucky to be down only eight at the half.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 16, 2014
Griffin picked up right where he left off to start the third, drilling a rare three-pointer. That seemed to be an indication that this was just the Clippers' night, but Durant's dominance proved to be the difference for the visitors.
Paul played poised, dishing out six assists to zero turnovers prior to the halftime break, and wound up with a team-high 25 points and 11 assists. He kept the Clippers' offense operating at a high level amid the massive momentum swings that came from runs by both teams—at least until the fourth.
When the lead began to slip, swingman Matt Barnes gave the home crowd something to cheer about with this emphatic slam dunk to put the Clips back on top by seven:
But Westbrook, while not impacting the game as a scorer after lighting it up for 38 points in Game 5, remained uncharacteristically patient and repeatedly fed his teammates for easy buckets. The Thunder executed well considering Serge Ibaka exited the game with a calf injury, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears:
Thunder forward Serge Ibaka is doubtful to returns with a left calf injury.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) May 16, 2014
Rookie Steven Adams provided excellent energy in lieu of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, who was in foul trouble throughout. Adams had 10 points and 11 rebounds, teaming with Nick Collison to keep the Thunder's frontcourt up to snuff against the likes of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
No. 2 point guard Reggie Jackson answered Barnes' previous slam with his own, as Anthony Slater of NewsOK.com outlined the key sequence that saw Oklahoma City even the score through three:
Reggie Jackson transition slam, Nick Collison corner three, ballgame tied: 72-72 heading to the fourth quarter.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 16, 2014
Who will win the NBA Finals?
There have been some unique circumstances surrounding the Clippers with the controversy involving team owner Donald Sterling. That can at least partially excuse the squad from not quite reaching expectations, yet the criticism befalling Paul will still persist until he reaches the conference finals. At least Griffin has proven capable of stepping up on the big stage, and coach Doc Rivers has plenty to build around in L.A. moving forward.
As for the Thunder, they will move on to face the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals. The last time they faced San Antonio at such a stage in the playoffs was two years ago, and Oklahoma City advanced in six games. However, James Harden was also on that team, and the Spurs are as determined as ever to get back to the NBA Finals after losing to Miami in an epic seven-game series last year.
Durant and Westbrook are seeking their first Larry O'Brien trophy against a seasoned San Antonio nucleus with plenty of championship experience, which has the conference finals poised to be a memorable clash between the West's top two seeds.