Let’s go back a bit.
Before Kendrick Perkins was sacrificed to the gods, the Clippers found themselves in a tight ballgame against the Thunder towards the end of the second half. Even though they had played near perfect basketball to that point, the Clippers saw their once seemingly insurmountable lead dwindle from 16 to 6. With all the momentum on their side, the league’s top team in the standings was looking like they’d go into the locker room thrilled to be where they were.
They almost made it.
How much damage can a team do with a 1:30 left on the clock? Let’s explore:
LAC 52, OKC 46
1:30: This is the subtle brilliance of Chris Paul. Daequan Cook is covering Paul, and he knows a pick is coming. He sees Reggie Evans charging at him from a mile away, so Cook wisely pushes Paul’s dribble away from the screener. Evans looks confused and temporarily slips the screen, only to remember that he’s Reggie Evans and has no interest in actually getting the ball. Just by using his dribble, Paul manipulates Cook by getting back to the middle of the floor to run him right off big Reggie’s chest. Paul gets a path to the paint, James Harden helps off Mo Williams to cut off the drive, and Paul finds Williams for an open 3 on the kickout. Bingo. LAC 55, OKC 46
1:12 Russell Westbrook is one of the most impressive athletes I’ve ever seen in my life, but sometimes, he’s too fast for his own good. Westbrook turns on the burners and leaves Mo Williams grasping for air on this possession, but he can’t put on the brakes before he slams into Reggie Evans. Russ tries to flip it to someone, but Williams is the only man in the vicinity. And this is why we don’t evaluate defensive performances by steals. Evans did all the work, Williams gets all the credit. Such is the life of a grinder.
1:05 Williams starts the break, but it’s a 2-on-2. He stops his dribble at the 3-point line, and kicks to Paul on his left, who is trailing the play. Chauncey Billups joins the action at the same time, and now the Clippers have a 4-on-3 secondary break as Cook gets back for the Thunder. Paul fires a skip pass to a wide open Billups on the wing, a shot Billups will hit with his feet set at an alarming rate. But Billups shows the benefits of having three point guards on the floor at the same time and makes a beautiful extra pass to an even more open (and hotter) Caron Butler in the corner. The floor spacing and passing is perfect, and so is Butler’s 3-ball. Bingo. LAC 58, OKC 46
:50 Westbrook brings the Thunder back up the floor, and they run a down-screen for James Harden on the wing. Harden fires up a deep, deep three in an attempt to answer, but it’s way off the mark. The Thunder have no one in position to rebound, and Evans easily pulls it in.
:37 Billups makes this play. It’s something I wanted Eric Gordon to do for years — if you’re not going to crash the boards, leak out on long misses. Billups gets behind the entire Thunder defense in transition, and James Harden has to sprint back to locate Billups in the corner. Williams fills the lane on the same side Chauncey cleared out, and Westbrook, still visibly upset from Harden’s shot attempt, fails to locate him. Williams giddily hops because he’s so wide open before Paul delivers the pass. With no one near him, Williams strokes the PUJIT, 3-point style. LAC 61, OKC 46
:33 At this point, the crowd is hysterical. The bench is all standing. Towels are being waved. Oklahoma City can’t get out of the half fast enough, but Williams’ quick 3-pointer sets the Clippers up for a 2-for-1.
:32 Caron Butler steals the inbounds pass so quickly that no camera catches it. Since it’s not on film anywhere, here’s my theory: Butler threw a bucket of confetti to temporarily blind the referee, then pulled the shorts down of Kevin Durant to reveal Mickey Mouse underwear, which amused Russell Westbrook so much that he decided to just give him the ball. Veteran move.
:31 More sharing. Butler dribbles out after the steal and passes up a corner 3. Now, normally, anyone who gets a backcourt steal gets a “get out of jail free” card. They earned it — they can fire up whatever shot they want. Butler instead swings it to Paul, who swings it over to Williams. Harden flies out on Williams and bites all over the pump fake. Instead of hitting the pull-up jumper he loves so much, Williams continues the love, takes one dribble, and kicks it back out to Billups who is spotted up and all by his lonesome. A fourth straight bingo falls. LAC 64, OKC 46
In back-to-back games, the Clippers have found a way to punish their opponent by going small. Give a lot of credit to Vinny Del Negro. Not only were his rotations better tonight, but his ability to recognize and exploit matchups on the floor was a wonderful sight to see.
You’ll remember Blake Griffin’s dunk, but the Clippers 12-0 run to end the first half behind some unselfish play was almost as fun.