The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in a wild game 5, 105-104. In an ending that has to be seen to be believed, the Thunder came back from down 13 points in the final 4 minutes of the game, and down 7 points in the final 49 seconds to shock the Clippers, who had led virtually throughout the affair. It was only after a turnover on the Clippers' final attempt in the game that the outcome was fully decided.
Game 5 is often considered the final inflection point in a series when the two teams are evenly matched, which is likely the reason why both teams showed more grit and resolve in this game than any other up to this point. The Clippers demonstrated an elevated defensive energy throughout, while the Thunder showed the same kind of resolve that the Clips did in the end of game 4. In each case, the trailing team turned what appeared to be a sure loss into a surprising win. Granted, this game involved a bit more controversy in the ending than game 4 (read on), but the fact remains, if the Thunder chose to give up on the game, they never would have been in a position to even try to make a play in the end.
The Thunder were led by Russell Westbrook, who put forth a Herculean effort in scoring a game-high 38 points, including 13-16 from the free throw line. Kevin Durant struggled mightily from the floor most of the game, finishing 6-22 from the floor (but 10-10 from the FT line) for 27 points. However, Durant came alive just at the right time, scoring 10 points in the 4th, including 2 huge 3-pointers during the final comeback attempt.
The Clippers were led by Blake Griffin, who finished with 24 points and 17 rebounds, and Chris Paul, who finished with 17 points and 14 assists but also had 5 turnovers, none more costly than the final 2 in the game.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Hooo boy...I guess this series needed a little controversy, eh?
Up until about the last 6 minutes of the 4th quarter, my assessment of the Thunder in this game was that they were competing with a better performing Clippers team, but every time they began to establish something they kept shooting themselves in the foot. They would get the game within a possession or two, but then run poorly executed sets in their offense, rush shots, or just make bad decisions and the next thing you know the lead was back to 6-8 points. I thought this would be their demise unless Kevin Durant somehow woke up from his woeful shooting night, but things appeared bleak heading into the game's final series of events.
And then, as this little guy might attest, things got weird.
The Thunder, staring a 3-2 deficit and facing a potential elimination game in L.A., got a series of breaks go their way. Trailing by 13 with 4 minutes to go, Kevin Durant finally hit some 3-pointers. The Clippers offense fell apart. For all I know, Steven Adams was on the sideline performing a Haka. After Durant first hit his last 3-pointer and then finished at the rim on a ridiculous fast break, Chris Paul did the one thing that he hasn't done all series. He turned the ball over. And he did it in one of the worst places possible - in his own back court at the sideline, where several Thunder players were waiting to scoop up the basketball. Reggie Jackson was the man on the scene, and as he attacked the rim, this is what happened:
Two things are clear from this visual:
1) Matt Barnes clearly fouled Jackson by swiping him across the wrist, which led to him losing the ball;
2) After Jackson lost the ball, his right hand pushed it out of bounds
The call on the floor was initially out of bounds in favor of the Thunder, but it was reviewed. However, the question is, what exactly was reviewable? During the normal course of the game, we see this kind of play a lot, especially under the backboard when on a rebound one player swats another player's hand and the ball goes out of bounds. Even though it usually looks like the ball was off of the player who got his arm hit, the refs will award possession to the other team because they don't want to call a foul on that kind of play.
Here though, the refs did not call a foul. Therefore, the foul was off the table. It was as if it never even occurred in the sequence of events, so all the refs could look at was, who was the ball off of before it went out of bounds?
After reviewing the play, the ball stayed with the Thunder. OKC followed up their good fortune by a ridiculous Westbrook 3-point shot. Words cannot even describe how ill-advised it was. And yet the Thunder appeared to be bailed out once again, as Chris Paul was called for the foul on the attempt. Westbrook buried his free throws. Finally, on the other end of the court, Paul turned the ball over again. The end.
Which of these two calls was the more egregious? If you asked Clippers coach Doc Rivers, it's a no-brainer:
Here was the official explanation by referee Tony Brothers:
"When the ball goes out of bounds, the ball was awarded to Oklahoma City. We got review the play. We saw two replays. The two replays we saw were from the overhead camera showing down, and one from under the basket showing the same angle but from a different view. And from these two replays, it was inconclusive as to who the ball went out of bounds off of. When it's inconclusive we have to go with the call on the floor."
Now, is this a defensible position? Let's go to the rule book, which @DannySavitzky helpfully provided the pertinent details:
Here, in full. pic.twitter.com/b7zauJqz6k
— Danny Savitzky (@DannySavitzky) May 14, 2014
The rule, as you can see, is both detailed and vague, which is the way us lawyers like to write things like this. I believe the intent is clear while the details are not, because they want to give the referees discretion in how they interpret the play. If a player has his hand on the ball and the defender hits his hand, even though the ball technically goes off the offensive player's hand, it is still the defender who is considered to hit it last. One thing the rule doesn't state is which hand we're talking about. In this case, Barnes hit Jackson's left hand while the ball went off of his right hand, but clearly the uncalled foul of hitting Jackson's left hand is what 'caused' the ball to go off Jackson's right hand.
I don't love Tony Brothers' explanation. I don't think it is right. I do however think the result is defensibly accurate. Sometimes you get the right call for the wrong reasons. I'm not sure that is necessarily a good thing, but it appears as that's what happened here.
As far as the foul on Westbrook's shot goes, to that I am less inclined. One of the things I really don't care for this season is how easy it has become to draw fouls on 3-point shots. I think it's easy to presume that Paul might have nicked Westbrook, given the weird trajectory of his shot, and afterward Paul didn't try to defend it. To me though I wish that these types of fouls were trending differently, regardless of which team it benefitted in the end.
That said, this shot of Durant as Westbrook shoots his free throws is priceless.
KD couldn't watch as Russ sinks free throws. Amazing Photo! pic.twitter.com/owqweTd9bb
— The Sports Animal (@sportsanimal) May 14, 2014
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
As much guff as he takes from talking heads associated with the NBA, be they commentators, reporters, or pundits, the one thing that remains constant is that he never backs down from a fight. We've seen it over the years in his resolve to compete regardless of the odds. Sometimes this fight causes him and his team to go off the tracks. Other times it is a historical level of defiance, like his one-man assault on the Heat in game 4 of the 2012 Finals.
We hear it year after year, especially in light of the James Harden trade. He's not efficient. He doesn't play the true point position. He takes too many 3's. And on and on. All these things are true to varying degrees. However, I can only think of a handful of players in the league who have what Kobe Bryant calls "the dog" in them, who swing like a war hammer over and over again, desperate to try and give his team a shot at winning in the end. It is less about late game heroics as it is to be a willing bricklayer when all the bricks around are crumbling. Some players would like to do it, and there are certainly plenty who like the spotlight in the end, but how many of them are out there who can take the bludgeoning, possession after possession, and still produce something in line of a 30-8-7 average? LeBron? Maybe?
I take Westbrook. 10 times out of 10.
What was a key element to understanding the game?
Here are a few points to be made in no particular order:
- The Thunder offense was nothing to write home about this game, but in the 4th quarter they locked things up defensively. This is what it always comes down to, when you're talking about comebacks of significance. You can rarely shoot yourselves back into a game, but if you can play good defense, there will be a chance. There are simply too many possessions available for there not to be.
In this 4th quarter, the Thunder held the Clippers to 34.8% shooting, including 0-4 for Griffin and 4-11 from Jamal Crawford. Anything more than 18 points allowed, and the Thunder aren't winning the game.
- Steven Adams continues to be a strong contributor. He still struggles in a number of areas, and I continue to believe that Griffin should not be able to shoot over him in any capacity, but 9 points and 4 boards in 23 minutes for a rookie who is extremely raw is a cause for great optimism. He gives the Thunder ball handlers a great target to hit, and he's learning how to finish better and better.
- DeAndre Jordan was a non-factor. Now, the Clippers still for intents and purposes "out-rebounded" the Thunder, because they grabbed 12 offensive rebounds on the night. Making it worse, Jordan, who fouled out in only 20 minutes of play, only grabbed 2 of them. Glen "Big Baby" Davis got 3 of them by himself. How the devil does Big Baby grab 3 ORB's? Anyway, aside from the rebounding, the big impact of missing Jordan in the 2nd half was that Blake Griffin had much less room to work in the post. After finishing with 15 points in the 1st half on 6-9 shooting, Griffin only managed 4-11 the rest of the way, and had zero made FG's in the 4th quarter. While OKC didn't fully capitalize on the absence of Jordan in the rebounding department, the effect on the Clippers' game was just enough to help them keep the game close.
- The Thunder reigned in their 3-point attempts. This to me is a meaningful statistic because we know how easily they can fall into a 3-point chucking mentality, especially with their star duos. Westbrook did force some 3's at the end, but Durant in particular was restrained. He shot only 6 on the night, making 3. He did not revert to his long distance gunning when his attempts to drive the ball failed. As a result, the Thunder were able to avoid a few more bad possessions as well as easy fast break run-outs.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
Game 5 is the pivot, because now all the pressure is on because the next game could mean the end for one of the two teams.
The big question for me is, how is Kevin Durant going to respond? I tend to think that a repeat performance is going to result in a loss for the Thunder. What does Durant need to do to get into A-level form? In my opinion, he has yet to really put his stamp on any one game. Can he make that happen on the road in a close-out game?
The Clippers were clearly shaken at the end of game 5. Will they recover?
Everything is up in the air as OKC prepares for their first chance to end this series.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 38 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 3 clutch free throws to win it
Thunder Down Under: Steven Adams, 9 points, 4 rebounds in 23 minutes
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant's shooting through 3 quarters (4-20) BUT which were redeemed with 2 clutch 3's in the 4th and 10 points overall
Thunder Plunderer: Blake Griffin, 24 points, 17 rebounds, 3 assists
Next game: Game 6 on Thursday, May 15th at 9:30PM CDT