The Los Angeles Clippers were in desperate need of a win in STAPLES Center on Sunday afternoon, trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-1 in their best of seven Western Conference semifinal series. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens for weekend afternoon games, STAPLES Center was dead at tip off, as were the Clippers themselves, and by the time the crowd had settled into their seats, the Thunder led 15-3.
It got worse before it got better. The Clippers fell behind by as many as 22 in the first quarter; everything Oklahoma City shot was going in, and everything was a miss for the Clippers.
Even when they began to play better and started to trim the lead down some, they seemed destined to not be able to get all the way back. They got within four points briefly in the second quarter -- but fell behind by 11 at halftime. They had a chance to cut the lead to six with an open three pointer at the end of the third quarter -- but instead gave up a three on the other end and were down a dozen.
Less than three minutes into the fourth quarter, the Thunder lead was back up to 16, the most it had been since the first quarter, and the situation seemed beyond hope. Blake Griffin was on the bench with five fouls, the shots were still not falling, and the Clippers had absolutely no answer for either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.
With Matt Barnes struggling to score (0-6) and doing little or nothing to slow Durant, Doc Rivers rolled the dice on a very strange lineup. He brought Griffin back into the game with five fouls, sat down DeAndre Jordan and matched OKC's small lineup. But the real change was that Rivers gave Chris Paul the assignment of defending Durant. With a lineup of Paul, Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Danny Granger and Griffin, the Clippers suddenly came to life. Granger in particular was an interesting choice given that he'd barely played the rest of game and had done little throughout the series. But even though the box score doesn't show much for Granger (zero points, one rebound), he was there when the Clippers mounted their comeback, and Doc stuck with the comeback group.
The Clippers finished the game on a 35-17 run. Darren Collison was absolutely huge in the comeback, scoring 12 of his 18 points down the stretch. Somehow, although the Clippers had not gotten anything easy all day, they suddenly began getting to the rim. Collison, Paul and Crawford all got easy baskets in the paint. Griffin got inside and either scored or got fouled. The Clippers scored on 17 out of their next 18 possessions -- with just two of those scores coming on jump shots.
One of those two jump shots proved to be huge. One of the primary reasons the Clippers had trailed the entire game was that they were completely dreadful from beyond the three point line. Early in the fourth quarter, they were 2-20 from deep, so the fact that they were behind by 16 points wasn't really surprising. But trailing by one with 90 seconds remaining, the Clippers took their first lead of the day on a Crawford three.
After a Westbrook layup tied the score once again, Collison got back to back breakaways (one off a steal, the other off a rebound) to give the Clippers a four point lead with 32 seconds left. It proved to be enough, but just barely. Westbrook got another quick layup, and the Thunder got the ball back with a chance to tie or win with five seconds left, but Westbrook's three came up short and the Clippers escaped with one of the biggest wins in franchise history.
The win is reminiscent of the Clippers Game 1 comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs two seasons ago. Amazingly, the Clippers managed to erase a 16 point deficit without really shutting down the Thunder offense. Paul did an amazing job on Durant given the size disadvantage, holding him to five points in the final nine minutes. Westbrook on the other hand continued to terrorize the Clippers. He got past Collison almost at will, scoring 10 points down the stretch, most of them right at the rim. Twice near the end when the Thunder were desperate for a quick score to get back into the game, Westbrook got a layup.
But there's a reason that point guards aren't usually known for crashing the offensive glass the way Westbrook does, and that's because coaches often prefer to have the back defending against the fast break. When Westbrook goes flying wildly at the basket, it can leave his team exposed. The key Collison layup that gave the Clippers a four point lead came on such a play.
The Clippers went into this game knowing they had a problem defending Durant -- after Barnes, nothing had worked (and Barnes hadn't worked very well). Will it work to have a six footer defending Durant on an ongoing basis? We'll see, but clearly the Clippers are going to try it again.
The series heads back to Oklahoma now. Two years ago when the Clippers had their miracle comeback win over the Grizzlies, they managed to win the series as well. Let's hope that's the case here as well -- it would be a shame to waste this comeback.