Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Three minutes and thirty seconds. That’s how quickly series can shift in the NBA playoffs.
The Los Angeles Clippers has thoroughly dominated the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Five. They were going to come back to Staples Center with the potential to close out the Thunder and ride into the Western Conference finals. Three minutes and thirty seconds was all that separated them from this reality.
However, three minutes and thirty seconds can also shift a game, a series, and a franchise. That’s exactly what happened to the Los Angeles Clippers in the final 210 seconds of Game Five in Oklahoma City.
The Clippers had pushed their fourth quarter lead to 13. They had all the momentum. Kevin Durant was putting on his worst performance of the playoffs in the most critical game of this series. Chris Paul had zipped through the Oklahoma City defense. Scottie Brooks, the Thunder Head Coach, didn’t have an answer for Doc Rivers. The Clippers had it wrapped up and were about to tie a bow on it.
Then, something happened. It was indescribable, unfathomable, and, if the Clippers lose this series, will be the defining three and a half minutes of their entire season.
The Clippers collapsed. So did the refs.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, by sheer will, propelled the Thunder to a Game Five victory over the Clippers by the score of 105-104.
So, what happened? Well, Westbrook and Durant put together a barrage of jumpers, the OKC defense came up with a plethora of stops, and the NBA referees committed some of the most egregious errors we’ve seen in quite some time.
It all looked swell for the Clippers. Chris Paul, who was magnificent for 47 minutes, hit what most described as a “dagger” with 47 seconds left to put the Clippers up by 7. However, Kevin Durant, who was 6/22 on the night, hit a miraculous three on a play that wasn’t supposed to happen. According to Doc Rivers, Durant was supposed to be fouled as soon as he caught the ball. However, he stroked a miracle three. The Clippers were up four. They had 32 seconds on the clock. It was still in the bag. Except, it wasn’t.
The Clippers came down the court, missed a jumper, and Westbrook fed a sprinting Durant, who scored an easy lay-up on the other end. Clippers up 2, 14 seconds left. At this point the Clippers still have the game in their hands. Simply receive the coming foul, hit your free throws, and get the heck out of dodge. It wasn’t to be.
Chris Paul decided to run away from the impending foul in order to run more of the clock. This turned out to be a fatal mistake. Westbrook, being the overzealous lunatic/genius that he is, came from behind Paul and tipped the ball into a surprised Reggie Jackson‘s hands. Jackson, who was now on a 3-on-1 fast break from his own 3-point line, kept the ball, foolishly, and went to the rim. He was clearly fouled by Paul and Matt Barnes. Two free throws coming, right? As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend”.
The referee’s decided that there was no foul on the play and they would go to a review to see who the ball had last touched. The Clippers had escaped, despite the “calamity of errors”, as Doc Rivers would describe it later. The ball had clearly touched Jackson’s hand last. However, the referee’s decided, in their infinite wisdom, that the ball had last touched Matt Barnes and the Thunder were awarded the ball on their baseline with 12 seconds to go.
Doc Rivers, who isn’t shy about wearing his emotions on his sleeve, was beyond irate and could be seen visibly screaming “That’s our ball! That’s our ball!” at referee Tony Brothers. Here was Brothers’ explanation of the decision to award the Thunder the ball.
The ball clearly went off Jackson. That is not up for debate. Jackson was also fouled on the play. That isn’t up for debate, either. The referee awarded the Thunder the ball because they realized they had made a mistake not calling Barnes or Paul for the foul. It will go down as one of the most blatant “Make Up Calls” in the history of the NBA playoffs.
Ok, back to the game. The Clippers still have a chance to win this thing. Don’t foul, get the rebound, sink your free throws, get the heck out of dodge. The Thunder inbound the ball to Westbrook and he dribbles it to the three point line. You know he’s taking the shot. Westbrook had been the Thunder’s best player all night. Westbrook goes up for three, foolishly, with 7 seconds left. The shot is off. But wait, there’s a foul. Chris Paul, in what would be the second of his three mistakes down the stretch, contested Westbrook’s shot and clearly got him on the forearm.
Westbrook calmly steps up to the line and knocks down all three free throws. The Thunder, from out of seemingly nowhere, are up 1 with 6 seconds left. The Clippers still had a shot to win; however, the game had already been decided. We just didn’t know it yet.
Paul took the inbound pass and drove to the lane, hoping for a foul on Serge Ibaka near the basket. He didn’t budge. Reggie Jackson snuck up from behind Paul, poked the ball out, the Thunder grab the loose ball and claim the game. It was over. The Thunder had magically escaped the jaws of death and grabbed a 3-2 series lead heading back to Los Angeles.
The crowd went crazy, everybody else in the universe was stunned.