Chris Paul made a jumper with 49.2 seconds left in Game 5 of the Thunder-Clippers cage fight, and all hope seemed lost for the Thunder. But then came a comeback for the ages. The Thunder’s 105-104 victory was the result of many things. But six plays in those final 49 seconds contributed most to the improbable verdict. Before the game gets too far in the rearview mirror, let’s look at them a little more closely.
1. DURANT’S 3-POINTER
The Thunder had to score and score quick. A 3-pointer in 5.5 seconds did the trick.
Clipper coach Doc Rivers late said his instructions were to foul Durant before he could launch a 3-pointer, but the Clips didn’t do that. Durant inbounded the ball to Russell Westbrook on the left wing, Durant moved to the top of the key, and when he passed Kendrick Perkins, the Clippers switched. Big Baby Davis took Durant and Matt Barnes switched over to Perk.
Durant veered back toward the left wing, caught a return pass from Westbrook and launched a 25-footer. Credit Davis with excellent defense. He didn’t get lost. He stuck with the taller and quicker Durant and was in great position. But Durant rose and nailed a huge shot.
2. DURANT’S FAST BREAK
The Clippers still had a four-point lead, the ball and just 43 seconds to squire off. And Los Angeles played it solid, using up most of the shot clock before it Jamal Crawford finally attacked with five seconds left to shoot, guarded by Kendrick Perkins in a quickness mismatch. Crawford got around Perkins but didn’t get off a great shot – a floating scoop shot from about five feet – thanks to Serge Ibaka moving over and attempting a block.
As Crawford drove, LA’s Matt Barnes, who was being covered by Durant on the right wing, made a big mistake. He darted into the lane to perhaps offensive rebound. Durant made a calculated gamble, hanging on the perimeter instead of sticking with Barnes.
The ball rimmed out not on the side where Davis was left free by Ibaka’s help, but on the side where Reggie Jackson blocked out the much-bigger Blake Griffin. Ibaka, with a quick jump after landing from his block attempt, tapped the ball to Westbrook in the lane, and Westbrook immediately spied Durant streaking down court. Westbrook’s in-traffic pass reached Durant around midcourt, where he had open space. Chris Paul sped back to contest Durant, but Barnes was trailing, and Durant was able to maneuver to the hoop for a lay-in with 17.8 seconds left.
Another quick Thunder score – less than five seconds into the possession – made it 104-102.
3. WESTBROOK’S STEAL
The Clippers had two timeouts, but Rivers chose not to use one after Durant’s layup, and it was a good decision. The Clippers easily inbounded the ball to Paul, a great foul shooter.
But as Paul toward midcourt, Westbrook approached, but not with wild abandon. Westbrook slowed down, obviously going for a steal instead of an immediate foul. That’s when Paul made a critical mistake. He jumped to pass, and Westbrook reached in and knocked the ball free.
Paul admitted he should have just kept dribbling and forced Westbrook to foul. But Paul tried to burn more time off the clock with a pass. But no Clipper was wide open. Griffin was left largely alone across midcourt, on the far side, but Reggie Jackson was playing a sort of centerfield and could have swiped a pass that wasn’t pinpoint. Durant was lagging in the middle of court, not really guarding Crawford or Barnes but in position to be a factor should a pass go towards either.
Westbrook’s deflection was picked up by the streaking Jackson, and suddenly the Thunder had a chance.
4. JACKSON’S DECISION
When Jackson picked up the ball, he drove in and was accosted by Barnes. The ball was knocked out of bounds and awarded to the Thunder. Upon replay review, the officiating crew upheld the call, leading to Rivers’ in-game and post-game outburst.
The call never should have had to be made. Jackson made a poor decision. He had Westbrook under the basket, but even better, he had Durant coming down the lane on the opposite side. This was a 3-on-1 jail break that at worst should have resulted in a dunk, maybe even a three-point play opportunity.
A simple pass to Durant would have led to an easy Durant or Westbrook bucket. Ironically, that would have merely tied the game. Instead, Jackson’s poor decision allowed the Thunder an opportunity to win in regulation.
5. WESTBROOK’S DECISION
Another poor Thunder decision turned out swell. Jackson inbounded the ball from the basket and got it to Westbrook across the lane, who thought better of attacking right then, because Griffin had come over to provide ample defense. So Westbrook pivoted back and dribbled out beyond the 3-point lane.
Westbrook dribbled right, then came back left and with 7.5 seconds left pulled up for a deep 3-pointer. Not a high percentage shot, especially with that much time left. Westbrook later said he was trying to give teammates an opportunity for an offensive rebound. Not bad strategy, except no Thunder was in decent position for an offensive rebound. Jackson and Durant were far out on the perimeter, and Ibaka and Caron Butler were walled off by Griffin and Davis.
But Paul bailed out Westbrook. He got his hand on Westbrook’s arm, and referee Tom Washington called a shooting foul. Three foul shots. In these NBA playoffs, that call has become standard. Sixty-five times in the postseason, referees have called a foul on a 3-point shot. The message is clear. Leave shooters alone. Paul didn’t.
6. TEAM DEFENSE
The Clippers had 6.4 seconds left to retake the lead. Scotty Brooks went with a defensive lineup of Durant on Barnes, Jackson on Crawford, Ibaka on Griffin, Westbrook on Paul and Thabo Sefolosha on J.J. Redick.
The Thunder switched on every screen. Before the ball was even inbounded, Sefolosha switched onto Paul and Westbrook onto Redick. The ball went to Paul 35 feet from the basket. Griffin immediately came over to screen Sefolosha, and Ibaka switched onto Paul.
Paul was about five feet above the 3-point line and Ibaka was at the top of the key. Paul immediately drove right and Ibaka made a vital decision, stepping back into the lane instead of letting Paul turn the corner around him. That left Paul with a quick decision – keep driving, or pull up for an open 18-foot jumper. Paul kept driving.
Ibaka immediately returned to pressuring Paul, and in from the right wing came Jackson, who left Crawford free beyond the 3-point line, but time was of the essence.
Crawford did not drift to the corner, where he would have remained in Paul’s line of sight. Crawford stayed on the wing, where he ended up behind Paul. Redick was open on the perimeter on the opposite side, but again, he was to Paul’s back. Paul saw no teammate open in his line of sight.
Meanwhile, in the lane, Sefolosha blocked off the bigger Griffin, keeping him from the basket. Jackson reached in as Paul drove, the ball bounced free and Ibaka picked it up as the final second ticked off.