The night before April Fool's Day, the Los Angeles Clippers almost pulled off the greatest prank of them all.
Playing their fourth game in five nights, the Clippers came into this game even more shorthanded than usual. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and DeAndre Jordan were all sent home early to join Blake Griffin and Paul Pierce, leaving the Clippers with only nine available players tonight. After doing well enough that Doc Rivers was able to rest his starters in the fourth quarter of the last three games, the role players got the chance to go it alone tonight.
Their opponent? A full-strength Thunder team, one that rested Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in their previous game just for this matchup. This seemed like an obvious blowout scenario, an easy 25- to 30-point victory for Oklahoma City on national TV.
That wouldn't happen. Shenanigans were afoot in OKC, and what looked to be a snoozer instead turned into a madcap affair, one of the wackiest and most exciting contests of the year. A roster that on paper bore more resemblances to the 1996 Clippers than the 2016 incarnation showed up and showed out, early and often, leading the way most of the second half and almost coming away with a stunning victory.
The troublemakers-in-chief tonight were Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, both pressed into starting duty. They responded to the challenge with monster performances, each notching 32 points (a career-high for Rivers) and combining for 12-17 from beyond the arc.
The rest of the team showed up too, playing free of the burden of expectations and nothing to lose. The Thunder opened the game 10-11 from the field, but the Clippers were unfazed by early adversity. Jamal Crawford was the anchor for the team early on, hitting multiple bombs in classic Crawford fashion and scoring 15 points in the first quarter alone.
Like a 2-seed against a 15-seed, the Cinderella upstart seemed like a mere nuisance for a while. Oklahoma City led by 7 after one, and by as many as 12 early in the second frame. But the Clippers were channeling their inner Middle Tennessee State tonight, and just kept hitting shot after shot, making mincemeat of the porous Thunder defense. Late in the first half, the Clippers took the lead after another Crawford rainbow pull-up in transition, and went into the half up 4 after he drew a three-shot shooting foul on the final play of the quarter.
It all seemed like fun and games, and the Clips' torrid outside shooting (9-13 at the half) seemed likely to come back to earth in the second half, as Oklahoma City was sure to come out of the locker room re-energized and locked in. OKC started the third on a 12-2 run and it briefly seemed like order had been restored.
Then, Los Angeles responded with a dazzling 21-6 run, putting them 92-83 deep into the third quarter. They'd caught lightning in a bottle, and they weren't letting go. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hit a deep corner three, Rivers and Crawford continued to hit deep bombs, and Cole Aldrich came up with a steal and downcourt to Wesley Johnson for the slam.
All nine Clippers tonight showed up and made contributions. Jeff Green had a typical Jeff Green game, scoring 19 points and making big plays, but also some frustrating decisions at times. Wes Johnson made some terrific passes, played solid defense, and had an all-around solid game. Pablo Prigioni didn't score but carried his weight elsewhere, and even C.J. Wilcox and Jeff Ayres came off the pine to provide some solid minutes.
Ultimately, order was restored after the Clippers thwarted multiple OKC runs in the final quarter. A three from Jeff Green put them up 115-110 with 4:20 to play, but after that point the Clippers struggled to score as Oklahoma City finally started getting their act together on defense.
LA's bane against OKC this year has consistently been their rebounding, and tonight was no different. The final margin was 46-26 on the boards, with the Thunder grabbing 17 offensive rebounds to the Clippers' 21 defensive rebounds. Of course, the last of those 17 came on what would be the game-winning score, as Steven Adams muscled past Aldrich and tipped in a wild Westbrook shot to give Oklahoma City a two-point lead. A tough layup from Austin Rivers failed to fall on the ensuing possession, and the Thunder managed to hold on for a narrow victory in a game that never should have been close.
Fans shouldn't be upset at the final result, or the few gaffes that the Clippers made in the final minutes that prevented them from sealing the win. That the Clippers even had a chance to come away with a victory, given all the circumstances, is astounding and worthy of applause. One can't help but appreciate the mettle, confidence, and effort shown by this paper-thin roster tonight.
Hopefully, this performance is a sign of more to come in April and May, especially with Blake Griffin set to finally return on Sunday in Los Angeles. The Clippers can't make waves in the playoffs unless their role players show up like they did tonight, and they need guys like Crawford, Rivers, and Johnson to continue to be reliable outside threats.
Maybe the supporting cast will continue to maintain this level of play once the games start to really count. Hopefully, they don't disappear in the second round like in years past, or we'll be left looking back at the false hope provided by this game and realizing that it really was an awful April Fool's Day prank after all.