That was fantastic basketball. On both sides, it was the type of game that you expect to see late in a conference finals series. Unfortunately, it's just a reminder that one of the three best teams in the conference will have to bow out early at the end of this series.
The Clippers, for their part, did their best today to not be that team, fighting furiously all game against the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs to ultimately tie the series 2-2 heading into a game 5 at home.
It was an amazing day for the Clippers' stars, as Chris Paul scored 34 points and took over the game late and Griffin dominated all-around, putting up 20 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 assists. And, most remarkably, Austin Rivers had 16 points on 7-8 shooting, lifting the Clippers' bench and helping them sustain a high level of play.
Here's some key points:
- J.J. Redick got going. I wrote about it in the preview and I've been harping on it for two seasons: Redick is the Clippers' most important offensive player because he provides them with a dimension that they have no means of replacing. The secondary action, movement, and floor spacing he provides makes everyone around him better, and the Clippers found ways to get him shots tonight, especially early. It doesn't even matter that he wasn't spectacular (though 6-12 and 3-6 from deep is better than he's been all series), just his presence changes the game in big ways.
- Blake Griffin can rebound. All season, we've heard about concerns that Blake Griffin's rebounding is down. Well, guess what? He's had double digit rebounds all series, and tonight he had a playoff career high with 19 boards. Especially in the second half, where DeAndre Jordan sat a lot, Griffin stepped up with 14 rebounds. It's pretty much confirmation to the theory that Blake was laying off a little bit during the regular season to save energy and ensure health for the playoffs.
- Austin Rivers isn't as good as he was tonight. There's gonna be a lot of talk about how great Rivers was tonight, and he really, really was spectacular. You can't argue with 16 points on 7-8 from the field. However, it's clear that this isn't who he really is. I don't think Austin is going to disappear, but I also would be surprised if he had another double figure game in this series. He'll probably stick around 6 points a game with some energetic defense, and that's exactly what he's on the roster for. Sometimes a random bench player breaks out and is the difference in a playoff game. Normally, you'd expect it from Jamal Crawford, but the Clippers will take it where they can get it. Oh, and by the way, I don't think Reggie Bullock was going to do that any time soon.
- FInally, a shorter bench. Doc Rivers finally made the key adjustment tonight of shortening his bench to 8 players. Clearly, Jamal Crawford is the best reserve on the team, with Glen Davis being the best backup big man. Austin Rivers qualifies as the 8th best player (his energy and potential for streakiness is more valuable than what Turkoglu provides), and that's exactly how Doc played it tonight. Outside of the main eight, Hedo only saw about a minute of action to start the second before being pulled quickly.
- The job's not done. This win was very satisfying, but all it did in the grand scheme of thing was tie the series up. Now, the Clippers have a task just as daunting as the one they faced a week ago heading into the series: 3 games in 5 days against the Spurs. Win two of them, and they move on. Fail to do so, and the season is over. J.J. Redick said that game 5 was a must win: "That's a death wish to come back here down 3-2 for a closeout game in San Antonio."
- Injuries. Matt Barnes suffered a sore right rotator cuff in this game. He sat for a long time at the beginning of the fourth quarter while he iced his shoulder, but that was likely just Doc's decision as the other wings (Crawford, Redick, and Rivers) were all playing much better than Barnes. Matt's not going to break out for 30 like Crawford and Redick are capable of, but it's about time for him to have a game where he spaces the floor, dunks a few balls, and gets 13 or 15 points to help lift the team. The team has said he's probably for game 5. Blake Griffin also appeared to hurt his right elbow right at the end of the game, actually inbounding the ball with his left arm on the final possession, but all reports have said that he's fine.