The Thunder-Clippers Western Conference semifinals didn’t have the late-game drama that punctuated the Thunder-Memphis series (four straight overtime games), but Thunder-Clippers had a plethora of personality subplots and intriguing battles. The Thunder beat the Clippers in six games and now moves on to the West finals against San Antonio. But before we delve too much into the Spurs, let’s look back at a memorable series against the Clippers.
POINT GUARD BATTLE
The Clippers’ Chris Paul, widely acclaimed as the NBA’s best point guard, and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, often praised for his phenomenal skill but often ripped for not being more like Paul, staged a memorable duel. Paul’s 12-of-14 shooting and 10 assists in Game 1 overshadowed Westbrook’s 9-of-14 shooting.
And the stage was set. Both players were brilliant throughout the series. Paul had a double-double every game. Westbrook had a triple-double in Game 2 and threatened to have another in Game 3. Their final numbers were startling.
Paul: 22.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 12.0 assists per game, with 51 percent shooting.
Westbrook: 27.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 8.8 assists per game, with 49 percent shooting.
“Just trying to win, man,” Westbrook said. “I came out every night trying to find a way to help us win games. My teammates and Kevin (Durant) gave me confidence of coming out, being aggressive, playing my game regardless of what was going on. That’s all I tried to do.”
This series will be remembered most for wild comebacks by the home team.
The Thunder led 82-66 with barely nine minutes left in Game 4 and still led 90-83 with four minutes left. The Clippers won, 101-99.
The Clippers led 101-88 with four minutes left in Game 5 and still led 104-97 with 45 seconds left. The Thunder won, 105-104. The collapses were remarkable.
The Thunder defense wilted in Game 4, allowing the Clippers to score on nine straight possessions, followed by one stop, then nine more consecutive scoring possessions. The Thunder offense drew criticism for growing stagnant, but the Thunder scored on nine of 18 possessions during the Clipper spree. And finally the Thunder had a chance to win, after Russell Westbrook’s basket with 27.5 seconds left. OKC got a last chance when Blake Griffin missed a shot with six seconds left. Westbrook hurried the ball upcourt and launched a 27-foot shot that bounced off.
The Thunder comeback in Game 5 was even more remarkable. Kevin Durant, who missed 14 of his first 17 shots, scored 10 points in the final 3 1/2 minutes. Durant’s 3-pointer with 43 seconds left gave the Thunder hope, and his fast-break layup with 17 seconds left cut the Clipper lead to two. Westbrook’s steal of Chris Paul gave the Thunder the ball, and Paul eventually fouled Westbrook on a 3-point shot with six seconds left. Westbrook nailed all three shots to give the Thunder the lead, then Paul committed a turnover in the final seconds as the Clippers worked for a game-winning shot.
In the press conference, a disconsolate Paul kept muttering, “It’s bad. It’s bad.”
REPLAY REVIEW RAGE
In the final seconds of the Thunder’s Game 5 comeback, Russell Westbrook knocked the ball loose from Chris Paul, OKC’s Reggie Jackson scooped it up and attacked the basket. The Clippers’ Matt Barnes accosted Jackson, the ball was knocked out of bounds and ruled Thunder ball.
As the officials went to the replay monitor, the Chesapeake Arena video board showed the play, and Clipper coach Doc Rivers believed the ball clearly was out on Jackson. But the officials disagreed, later saying their replays showed no conclusive evidence. The Thunder kept the ball and eventually won 105-104, capping a remarkable comeback.
Rivers went nuts on the court and in the postgame locker room. He even barked at Thunder chairman Clay Bennett in a Chesapeake Arena hallway.
“In my opinion, let’s take away replay,” Rivers said. “Because that’s our ball. We win the game. And we got robbed because of that call. And it’s clear. Everybody in the arena saw it. That’s why everybody was shocked when they said Oklahoma City ball. “
The play introduced us to an obscure NBA rule. If a defender hits the hand of an opponent who has the ball, and the ball goes out of bounds, the offense retains possession. The NBA issued a statement the next day, upholding the decision by the officiating crew. The league also fined Rivers $25,000.
The entire series was played against the backdrop of the Clipper scandal involving owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded making racist comments, which were released during L.A.’s first-round series against the Warriors. The story wouldn’t die.
During the series, Sterling gave an embarrassing interview to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and Sterling’s estranged wife gave an interview to Barbara Walters. Both Sterlings expressed an interest in retaining ownership of the Clippers, even though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the league will force the Sterlings to sell.
Also during the series, the NBA appointed a new Clipper CEO, Dick Parsons. As the face of the franchise, coach Doc Rivers had to constantly deal with the Clipper upheaval, and his players were constantly asked about it.
“Obviously it’s nothing that anybody wants to go through, nothing I want to go through,” Rivers said of the Sterling mess. “Overall, I thought our fan base and I thought the city and I thought our guys really hung in there. Very proud of them.”
BAD BLOOD & REAL BLOOD
These teams had sparred during regular-season games in recent years. That didn’t change in the series.
Nine technical fouls were called, including three on Kevin Durant and two on LA’s Matt Barnes. Blake Griffin suffered a bloody nose when his face caught Serge Ibaka’s bicep. Russell Westbrook received a flagrant foul for an excessive hit on Griffin. Ibaka hit Griffin in the family jewels, albeit unintentionally, as evidence by the lack of a foul call or any league action.
Durant and Paul, two friends and faces of the league, barked at each other with some words that wouldn’t please Durant’s grandmother.
Of course, everyone made nice after Game 6. Lots of hugs all the way around, and kind words.
“Clippers, definitely you got to take your hat off to them,” Durant said. “What happened to them (the Donald Sterling scandal) the last few weeks, to continue on fighting. It was almost cool to see them keep staying together and everyone kind of rallying around them. It was fun playing them.”
Blake Griffin grew up in Oklahoma City. He was booed in his hometown. Russell Westbrook grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, next to Los Angeles International Airport. He was booed in his hometown.
Such are the allegiances of these teams’ fan bases. Griffin, who also starred at OU, rapidly is becoming an OKC villain. He’s also rapidly becoming a dominating player. Griffin is expected to be named all-NBA first team this season, and he put up big numbers against the Thunder — 23.8 points a game, 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists.
Still, the Thunder did a solid job on Griffin, with Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison riding Griffin hard. Griffin shot just 46.3 percent from the field in the series.
“Disappointed,” Griffin said. “I feel like it could have been a very different series, with just a couple small things.”
After a grueling series against Memphis defensive whiz Tony Allen, Kevin Durant figured to have more freedom on offense against the Clippers. Indeed he did.
Durant had one poor shooting game — 6-of-22 in Game 5 — but still was dominant. He averaged 33.2 points per game in the series, with 9.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He shot 45.5 percent from the field.
Durant’s numbers continue to amaze. He missed a Game 2 triple double by one assist. He had 40 points in Game 4 and 39 points in Game 6. Sixteen rebounds in Game 6. Even the poor shooting game, Durant rallied to score 10 points in the final 3 1/2 minutes to fuel a big comeback.
“Lost some sleep at night preparing for these guys,” Durant said. “It was an emotional rollercoaster sometimes. But that’s what the playoffs is all about.”