LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers was desperate.
And so the Clippers coach coached like there was no tomorrow.
Did things he had never done. Made decisions he was willing to live with or die by.
But one adjustment kept Los Angeles from facing a virtually insurmountable 3-1 series deficit.
Rivers went small.
After getting abused by the Thunder’s small lineup in Game 3, Rivers made the right read, matched up his men properly and watched his team rally from a 22-point hole before securing a stunning and potentially season-saving 101-99 victory in Game 4 on Sunday afternoon inside Staples Center.
“I don’t think it’s brilliant coaching. That’s called desperate coaching,” Rivers admitted. “You’re just looking for any combination.”
Rivers made his move 53 seconds into the fourth quarter. His team trailed by 15.
He brought in Chris Paul for Glen Davis, putting Paul on the floor with Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Danny Granger and DeAndre Jordan. Roughly 21/2 minutes later, Rivers went even smaller, replacing Jordan with Blake Griffin and riding that lineup until it turned what should have been an runaway Thunder victory into a deflating defeat.
“We went completely unconventional,” Rivers said. “We went ultra-small...That’s a lineup that I don’t know if we ever used. We were just searching for the group tonight, and that group won the game for us.”
It worked mostly because of Paul’s surprising ability to defend Durant at the high post and disrupt the entire Thunder offense. But with Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder got exposed defensively for having just one big man on the floor. It opened the paint more than it had been all night and allowed the Clippers — namely Paul and Collison — to turn the decisive quarter into a layup line.
L.A. scored 24 points in the paint in the final period. The Thunder had that many points total in the frame.
Turnovers played a big part, as the Thunder gave it away five times in the fourth quarter and watched those miscues result in eight points. The Clippers also generated 12 fast break points in the period.
But the perils of the Thunder’s small lineup manifested itself mostly when its defense had no answer for the high screen and roll with Paul and Griffin.
When the Clippers scored on eight straight possessions midway through the final period, it was that play-call that trimmed a 16-point Thunder lead to seven and shifted momentum, for the first time Sunday afternoon, to the home team. Paul and Griffin produced 11 of those 15 points, with either Paul exploiting Ibaka’s hesitancy to help on drives or Griffin overpowering Durant on swtiches and scoring with ease in the paint or earning trips to the foul line.
“We found a set,” Rivers explained. “Over on the bench, we were sitting there looking at all my play calls and we finally stumbled on one. It’s one we’ve run a lot. But with the small lineup in, and with Blake being the only big, with his athleticism, you can’t switch it. If you switch it like they did you get punished. If you don’t switch it then C.P.’s going down the paint.”
There was plenty more you could point to in explaining the Thunder’s meltdown. But what the Clippers stumbled into when their coach resorted to desperation mode Sunday was an effective and efficient counter for what had become one of the Thunder’s biggest advantages.
And now it’s a best-of-3 series.