LOS ANGELES — A 22-point lead in the first quarter. A 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. A seven-point lead with four minutes left.
The Thunder had Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals well in hand. Then it all went poof at Staples Center.
The Los Angeles Clippers outscored the Thunder 35-17 in the final nine minutes Sunday to win 101-99 and send the series back to Oklahoma City tied 2-2.
The Thunder was in position to take command of the series. Instead, the Clippers have new life and the Thunder had a long jet ride back home to contemplate how this one got away.
“Every loss is tough to swallow,” said Kevin Durant, who led the Thunder with 40 points. “We got to have a quick turnaround. We got to turn the page quickly. Can’t get too high off of wins and too low off of losses. Got to figure out what we did wrong.”
What went wrong was defense. The Thunder continually allowed the Clippers easy shots in that fourth quarter. The Clippers scored 35 points in 81/2 minutes. Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook’s UCLA teammate, scored the final two Clipper baskets, after a Westbrook layup tied the game 97-97 with 1:16 left.
Westbrook’s driving layup got the Thunder within 101-99 with 27.5 left, and the Clippers finally missed. Blake Griffin’s inside shot bounced off, the Thunder hurried the ball upcourt and Westbrook launched a deep 3-pointer just before the buzzer. It bounced off.
“It’s a tough loss, but it’s a series, man,” said Westbrook, who had 27 points. “It ain’t like we’re going home (for good). It’s 2-2. We’ll go back home and take care of business.”
Game 5 is at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.