On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Clippers pulled off one of the most memorable comebacks of recent memory.
Facing a 16-point deficit near the start of the fourth quarter, it seemed as though 12 minutes was all that separated them from falling into a hole only eight teams in NBA history have been able to dig themselves out of. However, with a 38-point quarter, the Clippers were able to slow down the Thunder and keep their championship aspirations alive, knotting up the series at 2-2 with a 101-99 victory.
Blake Griffin and Darren Collison carried the scoring load in the fourth quarter, combining for 22 points, but in the end, it was the Clippers’ leader, Chris Paul, who changed the complexion of the game.
Paul had another big night statistically (23 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals), but it was his effort on the defensive end that made the difference down the stretch. No matter what they threw at him in the first three quarters, the Clippers had no answer for Kevin Durant — Matt Barnes, Danny Granger and Blake Griffin all failed to slow him down — and when Doc Rivers went with a small lineup of Collison, Paul, Jamal Crawford, Danny Granger and Blake Griffin to start the fourth as an act of desperation, it was the diminutive point guard who drew the tough assignment of guarding this season’s MVP.
Durant still got his numbers — he scored 10 points in the final quarter, which put him over the 40-point plateau for the first time in these playoffs — but Paul was able to pester the four-time scoring champion, which, in turn, took the Thunder out of their rhythm. It also gave the Clippers a huge spark, one which they rode until the final buzzer sounded.
Durant opened the quarter with five quick points — an and-one lay-in on the fastbreak, followed with a step-back jumper over Danny Granger — giving the Thunder a 80-65 lead with 9:56 remaining in regulation. Yet it wasn’t until seven minutes later that he would make his next shot (a tough runner over Granger’s outstretched arms on an out-of-bounds play). With Paul guarding him, he made only one basket and attempted just two shots.
Much like how Tony Allen had success guarding Durant in the Thunder’s opening round series, Paul used his quickness to stay with him when fighting through screens, and hounded him when he put the ball on the floor. Although Durant has a 11-inch advantage on Paul, the Thunder did little to exploit the mismatch. They kept trying to feed him in the mid-post, and when that didn’t work — Paul fronted Durant and received help on the backside from one of the Clippers’ two bigs to make tough passing angles — they went with high pick-and-rolls and pin-down screens, which played right to Paul’s strengths. He was able to shoot the gaps and stick with Durant, preventing him from getting any daylight.
More importantly, Paul was able to limit Durant’s touches down the stretch. Although he made 4-of-his-5 attempts from the field, Westbrook took the most shots in the final 12 minutes, which is certainly something the Clippers will live with. (Westbrook attempted 10 shots in the fourth quarter after taking just 12 through the first three). On the few occasions that Durant did get the ball in the mid-post area, the Clippers quickly double-teamed him to get the ball out of his hands, which even he admitted threw him off. It forced three turnovers, including one with a shade over three minutes remaining that led to a Collison dunk that cut the Thunder’s lead to just one.
While Paul had some success guarding Durant in Game Four, it’s unlikely that we’ll see that matchup for an extended period of time in this series again. Following last night’s game, Rivers told the media that the switch was purely situational and that he doesn’t like to force Paul to work that hard defensively because it takes a lot out of him, per The Oklahoman. The Thunder will undoubtably make adjustments; ones that would put Durant into more favorable positions, and ones that would make it harder for the Clippers to double.
Nevertheless, even if the move is a one-trick pony, it worked when the Clippers needed it to most. Paul made each possession a dogfight for Durant, and with it taking sometimes 10-seconds to try and feed him the ball, the Thunder were left discombobulated and having to force up shots with the shot clock winding down. Durant will shrug off the challenges a smaller Paul presented him last night, but the tape doesn’t lie. And at the end of the day, it’s what gave the Clippers some life and it’s why they are now going to Oklahoma with a chance of taking a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.