After going scoreless in 11 minutes of work in a Game 3 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Darren Collison got pulled aside by his head coach, Doc Rivers, for a bit of a chat.
"He just told me to stay in there," the Los Angeles Clippers reserve point guard told ABC's Doris Burke on Sunday. "He's constantly coaching me, constantly trying to make me better, and he just told me to stay with it. No matter how many plays Russ or K.D. or any of those other guys make, just keep staying aggressive."
In a Sunday matinee that saw Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the rest of the Thunder make play after play in the early going to roll up a 22-point first-quarter lead, it was Collison whose aggression carried the day late. The 26-year-old backup scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, including eight in the final three minutes to propel L.A. to a 101-99 victory, giving the Clippers their biggest come-from-behind win of the season and knotting their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals set with the Thunder at two games apiece.
Oklahoma City led by 16 points with nine minutes remaining in the game, and looked well on its way to heading back to Chesapeake Energy Arena holding a commanding 3-1 lead. But the Clippers, who opened the game with an abysmal 6-for-24 shooting performance in the first quarter to dig themselves a massive hole, rose up and mounted a furious comeback, outscoring OKC 35-17 over the final 9:01 to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
They got a late-game surge from All-Star power forward Blake Griffin, who bounced back from early domination (and a pretty painful low blow) by Thunder nemesis Serge Ibaka to score 10 of his team-high 25 points during the comeback. They got strong all-court play from All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who scored six of his 23 points and four of his 10 assists in that stretch. And, somewhat shockingly, they got a burst of off-the-bench offense from Collison, who made all four of his field goals and all four of his free throws down the stretch to exact a measure of revenge after being victimized repeatedly by Westbrook in this series, tilting the offensive calculus back in Los Angeles' favor.
"We all know it's Chris and Blake's team, but I'm just trying to be in my own role to the best of my abilities, play defense, and just make plays on the offensive end," Collison said.
After clawing their way back from a massive final-frame deficit, the Clippers were able to hang on after a wild final sequence that saw all sorts of quizzical and curious stuff happen:
For one thing, it's kind of nuts the Thunder failed to foul after Westbrook's layup despite trailing by two with just 27.5 seconds remaining. You would've expected them to, considering there was just a 3.5-second difference between the shot clock and game clock, and that they had no other way to stop the game, since they were out of timeouts after head coach Scott Brooks had used three in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter — also kind of nuts — and spent his final stoppage after a Collison layup gave L.A. a four-point lead with 32.8 seconds remaining.
Also kind of nuts: Griffin attempting a layup with about five seconds remaining on the clock, which opened the door for the Thunder to get one last shot for the tie or the win. Westbrook, naturally, went for the win, getting a good look at a 3-pointer with two seconds remaining, but coming up shy. Durant, wide-open at on the right wing, might've had a good look too, but that's a hugely difficult cross-court pass to make on time and on target with only a couple of seconds remaining on the clock in which to get a shot off. Ibaka got the offensive rebound and attempted a tip-in that missed (and likely wouldn't have counted had it gone down), and the Clippers escaped tied at two. Like I said: Kind of nuts.
Durant scored a game-high 40 points on 12-for-24 shooting — his first 40-point performance of this postseason and the fifth of his career — with 21 coming after halftime. But with Durant getting just about whatever he wanted when defended by the likes of Griffin and Matt Barnes, Rivers elected to give Paul the primary defensive assignment on Durant in the fourth quarter.
After Durant struggled at times in Round 1 against a strong, quick, determined, active-handed smaller defender in Memphis Grizzlies stopper Tony Allen, Rivers rolled the dice by calling upon the somewhat similarly styled Paul to work double-time to deny Durant the ball, then fight to make things as difficult as possible on the newly minted MVP once he got it. When the near-7-foot Durant began to work on the 6-foot Paul in the post, the Clippers brought quick double-teams to eliminate any breathing room for KD to operate, and had wings like Collison and Jamal Crawford ready to dart into passing lanes for disruptions, deflections or steals.
After the game, Rivers would classify the decision as "desperate" rather than "brilliant," but it seemed to work. While Durant scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the final 12 minutes, he did so in a one-on-one matchup rather than by slicing through multiple defenders on the way to the rim, helping the Clippers maintain better balance in their base defensive grouping, avoid the brand of breakdowns that allowed the Thunder to scorch the Clipper D early in the contest, and presented a different look that helped disrupt Oklahoma City's offensive rhythm. Not that Durant was willing to concede as much after the game:
As CBSSports.com's Zach Harper notes, though, Durant managed just four field-goal attempts over the final 11-plus minutes of Game 4 and turned the ball over three times. With KD drawing additional attention and finding limited room to maneuver, the Thunder offense largely stalled. Westbrook — mostly sensational on Sunday, scoring 27 points, dishing eight assists, pulling down six rebounds and snaring three steals — went 4 for 10 in the fourth, including that game-sealing missed triple.
On the small-defender-on-bigger-guy front: Rivers achieved a similar disruption in the second quarter, rolling out lineups that would require reedy Sixth Man of the Year Crawford to check bruising Thunder swingman Caron Butler. Oklahoma City responded by dumping the ball into Butler in the post and giving him multiple opportunities to exploit his one-on-one matchup against the defensively overwhelmed Crawford. In a micro sense, the decision made sense, as Butler was easily able to back down Crawford and scored six points on 2-for-3 shooting in the frame. From a big-picture perspective, though, the mismatch-hunting seemed to take Oklahoma City out of the freewheeling, shot-making, ball-sharing flow that they had from the opening tip.
The Thunder raced out to a 17-3 lead behind a blazing start from Westbrook. They extended the advantage to 29-7 with just over three minutes remaining in the opening frame and went into the break up 32-15, roasting the Clippers to the tune of 64.7 percent shooting. L.A., meanwhile, just couldn't get anything to fall, with Ibaka stonewalling every Griffin post-up and perimeter shooters Crawford, Barnes and J.J. Redick combining to go 0-for-9 from the floor in the first.
With OKC settling for suboptimal possessions centered around mismatch-hunting and isolations, Crawford, Griffin and Paul finally managed to generate some offense in the second quarter, outscoring the Thunder 27-25 by themselves and getting the Clippers as close as six points when Rivers gave Paul his first rest of the game with 1:13 remaining in the half. The Thunder promptly ripped five straight points, limiting Paul's breather to just 46 seconds, and headed into halftime up 57-46.
Foul trouble (Griffin, Westbrook and Ibaka all picked up multiple personals) and missed shots (the two teams combined to go 11-for-41) mucked up the third quarter, but the Clippers kept chipping away, getting OKC's lead to single digits before a shot-clock-buzzer-beating 3-pointer by reserve Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson sent Brooks' crew into the fourth with a 75-63 lead. The Thunder would score seven of the fourth quarter's first 10 points; evidently, that put them right where Rivers and company wanted them, with Collison's persistent attacking sparking the comeback, an and-one layup by Griffin tying the game at 94 with 1:50 remaining, and a 3-point bomb by Crawford giving the Clippers their first lead of the contest with 1:23 left. They didn't lead for long on Sunday, but they led when it mattered most.
With reporters congregating to ask Rivers about what he'd just witnessed and how he felt as the action heads back to Oklahoma for a pivotal Game 5, Doc had a reaction that I'm guessing an awful lot of us felt after watching that frenetic fourth quarter:
I can't blame him. And after watching their team's golden opportunity to go up 3-1 fall by the wayside in those final few minutes, I wouldn't blame Thunder fans for wanting one, either.
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