Eric Gordon was 5 for 15 from the field when it happened. He couldn’t get a shot to go in from outside, nor when he drove and the fouls had rarely come. The Clippers themselves even looked downright terrible at times in the first half, falling behind by as many as 16 points and on the verge of turning in a stinker like they did in the game before against Phoenix. But with the Clippers tied at 92 and less than a minute remaining, Eric Gordon completely disregarded the precedent set earlier in the game, squared up from three just left of center and buried the backbreaker. 95-92 Clips. The Thunder desperately tried to answer, but Randy Foye quickly poked the ball away and raced to the other end of the court and drew the foul. He made both free throws, essentially icing the game. The Clippers won, coming back from their largest deficit of the entire season.
The Thunder jumped out to a 15-4 lead on the Clippers, with the help of a white hot Kevin Durant. He scored a quick 8 points on 5 shots and the Clippers ability to stop him (Durant scored 18.5 points on 31 percent shooting in the two games before) looked like a fluke. Jamario gave his best, but he was highly ineffective.
On top of their defensive struggles, Eric Gordon and Mo Williams couldn’t make a shot to start out the game, due to the physical defense of Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefalosha (Sefalosha is THE most underrated defender in the league). The two guards combined for 1 for 3 shooting and 2 turnovers in that first Thunder run. The Clippers fought back some, closing the gap to 7 points, but only two Clippers had more than one field goal (both Blake and Craig Smith had 2 field goals apiece). But that just felt like a superficial turnaround because the Clippers still couldn’t even hang onto the ball (5 turnovers) or shoot for a decent percentage (41 percent in the first quarter).
However, the turnaround wasn’t a superficial one, but just latent in the game. The hidden strength of the game started with Blake Griffin and Randy Foye. As soon as Moon moved off KD, the best defense was played. After starting 4 for 5, Durant shot 1 for 3 in the rest of the quarter and had Blake pick his pocket on an isolation play (which led to a Jamario Moon fast break dunk). Randy Foye’s successful defense of Durant was perplexing because he gave up at least 6 and probably more like 8 inches to Durant. Let’s look at the sequence of Foye on Durant. First touch, Durant passed off, no Thunder bucket. Next, Foye fouled Durant. Then forced Durant into a miss. The only play that Durant succeeded was the end of the quarter jumper after he already missed a three pointer.
Those individual defensive performances didn’t carry over to the team, though, and the Clippers continued to dig a big hole in the second quarter. Probably because of his effort on defense, Foye struggled mightily on offense, and didn’t create any sort of flow. He took his shots when he could, missing a long two, a floater and a three within the first three minutes while James harden buried three pointers (and did a ridiculous three fingered hand gesture after every shot where he dragged his arm low will giving the A-Okay sign but pointed down). The Clippers fell down by 15 before the Clippers subbed out Foye for Aminu. And even though Gordon made a pair of free throws, Daequan Cook made a quick rebuttal three to extend the lead to a game high 16 points.
The Clips half-heartedly chipped away at the lead, with the Al-Farouq Aminu dunk and the Eric Gordon front of the rim, miracle bank layup seeming like an exception rather than the start of a trend. The atmosphere felt like a first hand account of exactly what happened in Phoenix, lazy effort and execution lacking.
“I didn’t like the way we played in the first half,” Vinny said. “Our intensity and energy wasn’t good last night and it kind of came over to the first half tonight. I challenged the guys and they responded.”
Whether or not the Clippers were responding to Vinny or just taking their second quarter surge, there is no denying that the Clippers not only played much better in the second quarter, but just looked better. They hustled for rebounds, got out in transition and their offense forged together. The Clippers played by far their best third quarter of the year.
The Clippers continued to play great defense on Kevin Durant, as he shot just 3 for 9 in the third quarter, 2-5 in Jamario’s time on the floor and 1-4 during Aminu’s. Their offense was merely mediocre even through the start. In the first 5:30 of the third, the Clippers only scored a bucket on a pair of DeAndre Jordan put back slams, and one layup each for Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. But because the Clippers’ defense was good, they were able to weather the Thunder until they went on a 10-0 run on a Jamario Moon 3, a Blake reverse layup, three technical foul shots (Perkins, Westbrook and coach Scotty Brooks all earned one) and a Blake Griffin righty bank shot (after he had a fantastic rebound and saved the ball as he fell out of bounds by whipping it to Aminu). The fans were elated and the prospect of an upset felt very real.
The Thunder may have been rattled but that didn’t stop them from halting the Clippers push, despite more technical fouls (one on Nazr Mohammed and a double on Nick Collison and Blake), a game tying offensive rebound and layup from Blake and supposedly momentum swinging three. The Thunder even bumped their lead back to five points early in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers countered with their small ball lineup, sending out Gordon, Foye and either Bledsoe or Mo to play with Smith/Blake and DeAndre. The lineup flummoxed the Thunder for a coupe of minutes, as the Clippers charged back to another tenuous lead. However, the Clippers began to fumble in the fourth quarter, and had this been earlier in the season they probably would have lost the game. The Clippers just couldn’t stop fouling and whining (DeAndre was called for the technical foul when he complained on Eric Gordon’s foul of Westbrook), they eventually were down by as much as 5, again, with only five minutes remaining.
The volatility of the small ball lineup swung back in the Clippers favor as Foye made a three, Eric Gordon made a bucket and when Kevin Durant answered with a jumper to take the lead (his only field goal of the quarter), Randy Foye hit a stepback 30 foot three pointer over Durant’s outstretched arms to take the lead back. But the Clippers showed their predictability by trying to go for the dagger alley-oop for Blake, only to have Harden deflect the pass and get Ibaka an easy dunk to take the lead back.
The Clippers didn’t fret, got the ball back to Blake, who drew consecutive fouls and made 3 of 4 shots from the free throw line and set up for that huge Eric Gordon three.
More than any other game, the Clippers had fight. Usually in their big wins, they get the lead and take the lead, but tonight they showed the mettle typically reserved for playoff type teams. Even though they made mistakes they didn’t let those mistakes distract them from continuing to play hard and smart. If the Clippers are ever going to develop like the Thunder, they’ll have to remember the lessons learned in this game.
- Craig Smith had his biggest game of the season, scoring 14 points on 6 for 8 shooting and providing a great bench lift especially with Chris Kaman out. He scored in some of his normal ways, bullying around the rim, put backs off offensive rebounds, but also drove to the hoop for a bucket and drilled a 20 footer from the top of the key.
- Eric Gordon has had a fantastic year, but I wonder if he has become too demonstrative after he goes to the rim. He drew a technical tonight once, complained frequently and that could hurt him on borderline calls, like when it appeared Gordon blocked Westbrook from behind but was instead whistled for the foul.
- Sticking with Gordon, he still struggles with his handle, possibly because he dribbles with the ball so far away from his body. He finished with three turnovers that could have been more if a few mishandled dribbles didn’t go out of bounds off Thunder players. Surely, his weak wrist has an effect on his handle, but Gordon still needs to improve if he wants to become a truly special player.
- Aminu. Played great tonight, and played the best defense I’ve seen all season. He even had some good passes, like a third quarter interior pass to Rhino that almost turned into a bucket and a fourth quarter dish to DeAndre that would have been an easy slam had DeAndre not been fouled. They didn’t result in assists but they didn’t go unnoticed either. His offense came completely on the fast break tonight, with his coast to coast monster dunk, the Bledsoe assisted fast break layup in the fourth and the put back jam off Bledsoe’s miss on the break.
- Blake drew three charges and had some solid cameo defense on Kevin Durant. Love his late season improvement on defense.
- The Clippers look more like they have each other’s backs. When Blake and Collison were chirping, Craig Smith jumped right in, and when Blake hit the deck in the third, three Clippers raced to pick him up. Little things, but those little things help keep a team together.
- Randy Foye played great defense on Durant and made some huge shots late in the fourth (that stepback, rebuttal 30 footer over Durant was insane) but he also played miserable defense on James Harden and ran the offense terribly for stretches in the second quarter. As it was, he made those giant buckets, and was a key to success, but he could have just as easily been the goat.
- Revenge of the dunk contest? First it was JaVale McGee and now Ibaka, but Blake had one of the most vicious rejections of the season:
An amazing block from Ibaka, but I’m not so thrilled about him stealing Dikembe Mutombo’s fingerwag afterwards. Ibaka will have enough great blocks that he needs to have his own reaction.