The crowd at Staples Center was barely audible. The momentum had swung quickly and early in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s direction. The rout was on.
And that was just the first quarter.
Amazingly, the Clippers found the resolve they lacked through most of their best-of-seven series against the Thunder. Trailing by 22 points after nine minutes — and still behind by 16 early in the fourth quarter — they staged their biggest comeback of the season.
Their 101-99 victory Sunday at Staples Center was equal parts grit and miracle, a win so unlikely even the players struggled to explain it.
“I think we just willed this one,” Chris Paul said.
However it happened, it brought the Clippers back from the brink of elimination in their Western Conference semifinal series. A loss would have buried them in a 3-1 hole with Game 5 at Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. The win makes it 2-2 and turns the matchup into a best-of-three series with Game 6 at Staples on Thursday.
They got there after falling behind 29-7 in the first quarter. They got there by scoring 38 points in the fourth quarter, by using what coach Doc Rivers called an “ultra-small lineup” to keep up with the faster Thunder and by playing tough defense on forward Kevin Durant.
Rivers used point guard Chris Paul to defend Durant, who at 6-foot-9 holds a nine-inch height advantage over Paul, but also trapping to force the ball out of his hands.
“We trapped this time,” Rivers said. “We probably should have the last time. Whenever he got (the ball), we sent an extra guy. At the end of the day, Durant is going to be able to get a good look over C.P. That’s why we sent help.”
But Durant, who scored 40 points but was just 1 of 7 from 3-point range, insisted Paul didn’t present any kind of challenge with his defense.
Mark J. Terrill-AP Photo
“He doesn’t,” he said. “It’s not a one on one. When I caught the ball, they sent a double-team. When they sent the double-team, they did a good job of crowding me, making me get rid of the ball.”
Oklahoma City shot 51.4 percent in the first half but 36.8 percent in the second half.
Paul, who had 23 points and 10 assists, scored six points in a row midway through the final quarter, pulling the Clippers to within six points, 84-78.
Crawford gave the Clippers their first lead of the game, drilling a 3-pointer off a pass from Paul with 1 minutes 23 seconds left for a 97-95 edge. He finished with 18.
Russell Westbrook responded by making a layup that tied the game, then Collison scored again to put the Clippers up by two again.
Westbrook missed a six-footer with 38.9 seconds left, but Griffin got the rebound and passed on the wing to Crawford, who found Collison on the break. His basket gave the Clippers their biggest lead, 101-97.
“We’ve had wins like this throughout the season,” Collison said, and indeed they have. They trailed the Dallas Mavericks by 17 points in the regular season before rallying, and now have 14 comeback wins in games they trailed by 10 or more points.
“You can’t just hang your head and throw in the towel at that point,” Griffin said, referring to the 22-point deficit. “You’ve just got to keep chipping away, and good things will happen.”
They finally did. Rivers, who said the Thunder “smelled blood in the water” with their explosive first quarter, looked exhausted afterward. He slumped into a chair in the postgame interview room.
The first question: Did he want to make a statement after that crazy game?
“I want a beer,” he answered.
He earned it. They all did.