LOS ANGELES — The Thunder jumped on the Clippers early in Sunday’s Game 4 matchup, and were out to a lead of as many as 22 points before nine minutes of game time had elapsed. They withstood runs that had L.A. within four in the second quarter, and back within eight late in the third after the lead had ballooned up to 15 once again.
In the fourth, Oklahoma City appeared destined to cruise to victory, leading by 16 points with under nine minutes remaining, with no sign that the Clippers would be able to figure things out in time to rally and avoid a three games to one deficit that would have all but sealed their fate in the series.
But the home team’s desperation paid off. L.A. used some small lineups as a last-ditch effort, switched Chris Paul onto Kevin Durant defensively, and got an incredible performance on both ends of the floor from reserve Darren Collison to put together an improbable comeback, and steal a 101-99 victory that evened the series at two games apiece.
“That’s desperate coaching,” Doc Rivers said afterward. “Yesterday as a staff we said Durant was beating us with his dribble. If you put a guard on him, you could make him more of a post-up player.”
The strategy worked to perfection in terms of disrupting the Thunder’s fourth quarter offense, which became stagnant at the worst possible time. There was too much Russell Westbrook, who was 4-of-10 shooting in the period, and when Durant did get the ball, often times he was trying to post up the much smaller Paul at the elbow, which created disastrous results.
That decision allowed L.A. to swarm Durant with double teams, usually with the speedy Collison coming over to help create chaos. Durant turned it over three times in the fourth, and the Clippers had 12 fast break points over the final 12 minutes — a huge reason for their success. In fact, 12 of L.A.’s 14 fourth quarter field goals came right at the rim, and many of them were uncontested.
Durant was in no mood to credit Paul for the defensive job he did in the fourth after such a disappointing loss, but there was some truth to his words that went beyond the clearly bitter taste in his mouth.
When asked what changed in the fourth after he was able to score 30 points through the first three periods on mostly good looks, Durant said simply: “Nothing. I scored in the fourth.”
He did indeed — 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, to give him 40 for the game.
And when asked specifically to detail the challenge Paul presents defensively?
“He doesn’t,” Durant said matter-of-factly. “It’s not a one-on-one. When I catch the ball, they sent in a double team. When they sent the double team, they did a good job of crowding me and making me get rid of the ball. When it’s one on one, I got the advantage.”
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks had few answers postgame, saying only that he’d look at the film and make some adjustments, while commenting more than once on the game’s physicality. Rivers confirmed it’s not something the Clippers can do a lot of in the future and expect the same amount of success.
“Situational,” he said of matching up Paul on Durant defensively. “We do like it because of CP’s hands, he’s pretty strong. But I don’t like it because then you’re taking a lot out of CP. That’s not a matchup we are going to live with, I can tell you that.”
The part about not wearing down Paul is critical, because when things were at their darkest in this one, he’s the one who fought more than once to drag his team back. In the fourth, he scored six straight points to cut a lead that was then 12 to just six with 6:13 to play, before Collison took it from there offensively, scoring nine of his 12 points in the period from that point forward to continue the comeback, and help close the game out.
“Darren Collison was amazing today,” Paul said afterward. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a relationship with somebody like I have with D.C. because we both push each other and motivate each other. Maybe because I was a rookie with him in New Orleans. You just got to love a guy like that who plays with so much heart and never gives up. Game ball goes to Darren Collison.”
Collison was huge down the stretch, but the Clippers wouldn’t have gotten to the point where they had a chance at the comeback if it wasn’t for Paul’s grit, on both ends of the floor, that was present in just about all of the 45 minutes on the court. He finished with 23 points and 10 assists, to go along with five rebounds and four steals, while turning the ball over just once.
The Clippers stole this game from their opponent, and they know it; the desperation on the part of Rivers, Paul and Collison on their home floor ended up being enough to pull this one out. It’s not a scenario that’s repeatable for L.A., especially against a Thunder team that’s proven capable of generating big leads against the Clippers, and holding them for extended stretches.
Now with the series tied heading back to Oklahoma City, Rivers knows his guys can’t afford to get off to another slow start, and will need to match the intensity of an angry Thunder team from the jump in order to have a shot.
“They’re seething right now,” Rivers said. “They had an opportunity to go up 3-1 and now it’s an even series. We were almost on the mat and we got off of it. We didn’t get pinned. We’re back up and now we’re all even.”