You can call it the Mother's Day miracle, or the mother of all comebacks, or whatever Mother's Day-related name you want.
Just don't call the Clippers' pulse-pounding, season-saving 101-99 comeback win over the Thunder Sunday afternoon lucky.
In a game where they fell behind 25-7 right out of the gate and later let the lead grow to a mind-boggling 22 points, the greatest comeback in Clippers history was all about hearts and smarts.
What do you do when a 6-foot-11 superstar is torching everyone who tries to cover him and leading his team to a rout on his way to 40 points? Simple – put a guy a foot shorter who's built like a fire hydrant on him at the start of the fourth quarter. With the heart of a lion, Chris Paul stepped up to the challenge and imposed his will on NBA MVP Kevin Durant.
Then you send a trapping double team each time Durant gets the ball – but send it from a different direction and a different player each time so it's impossible for Durant to anticipate it and get comfortable. The result: a flurry of turnovers that led to leak-out baskets for backup point guard Darren Collison.
Collison was the linchpin of Coach Doc Rivers' small-ball strategy, employed as much out of desperation as out of coaching brilliance with his team facing an imminent 3-1 deficit and the next game Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. The Thunder's lead was 15 points early in the fourth quarter when Rivers sent out a Lilliputian lineup of 6-foot Paul, 6-foot-1 Collison, 6-foot-5 Jamal Crawford and 6-foot-7 Danny Granger (who had barely played at all) along with 6-foot-9 Blake Griffin, who only seems taller because he's such a freaky jumper and all around uber-athlete.
The result was a 38-24 Clippers edge in the last quarter that carried them to an improbable victory, one that knotted the series at 2-2 and assured there will be a sixth game Thursday night at Staples Center. But it wasn't assured until Russell Westbrook's last-second 3-point attempt that would have won the game rimmed around and out at the buzzer.
In the end, the Clippers led for only 67 seconds of a 48-minute game, but they were the most important 67 seconds of a Clippers season that started way back in October and feels like it's well into its second year by now, thanks to disgraced owner Donald “I'm a Horndog But Not a Racist” Sterling and his bride of Frankenstein, Shelly “I Will Not Be Ignored” Sterling.
Once again, the contrasting team dynamic patterns that have begun to assert themselves in this fascinating series played out in the Clippers' favor. While the Thunder relied almost exclusively on Durant and Westbrook (27 points), the Clips had four players in double figures, led by Griffin with 25, followed by Paul with 23, and both Collison and Crawford with 18. The Clips are clearly the deeper team. The series will turn on whether that depth advantage can off-set the absolute athletic brilliance and individual heroics of the Thunder's two superstars. Sunday the Clips bench outscored the Thunder's bench by 40-19, and that margin was just big enough to make the difference.
But it wasn't all good news for the Clippers. Once and for all it became crystal clear: Clippers starting shooting guard J.J. Redick can't guard anybody on the Thunder. He has no chance of stopping either Durant or Westbrook, and at one point Rivers grew so frantic to keep him on the court that he actually had Redick guarding Thunder Center Kendrick Perkins, a non-shooter whose main role is bullying people under the basket.
Finally, Rivers saw the light and, with the season on the line, benched Redick, who wasn't hitting his shots anyway and was a bigger and bigger defensive liability by the minute. He gave Redick's minutes to Collison and Crawford, who at least have the quickness and athleticism to stay in front of the Thunder stars and challenge their shots.
It will be interesting to see if Rivers has to learn this lesson all over again at the start of game 5, or if he bows to reality and starts either Crawford or Collison in place of Redick. Over the course of an 82-game season where you play a new team every night, a great shooting poor defender like Redick can be hidden in a team defensive scheme and his flaws can be at least partially mitigated by fly-swatter supreme DeAndre Jordan. But in a 7-game playoff series where match-up problems become magnified as the series goes on game after game, the other team starts to pick on someone like Redick to the point where whoever he is guarding suddenly becomes the focal point of their offense.
It was a tense, physical battle all the way, with four technical fouls and both teams complaining to the refs on nearly every call. Less than one minute into the game, Perkins pushed Serge Ibaka towards Griffin as the Clippers forward attempted a layup. Falling forward, Ibaka's right hand punched Griffin's groin, causing Griffin to double over in pain as he landed.
After the game, Griffin was asked if he thought the low blow was intentional.
“I don't know, I can't get into his head,” Griffin said. “I'm not going to try.”
There's no need. After stealing this game that the Thunder controlled for 46 minutes and 53 seconds until the moment Crawford drilled a cold-blooded three-pointer, the Clippers are clearly in the Thunder's heads.
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