Los Angeles Clippers: Oklahoma City Thunder
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsKevin Durant started slow, but came alive to record his 9th 30-point game of this postseason.
Kevin Durant did it again. The NBA's 2013-14 MVP stepped up when his team needed its go-to guy. Durant netted his ninth 30-point game of the postseason. No other player has more than four this postseason.
With Durant and the Thunder advancing to the Western Conference Finals, here's how Durant (and the Thunder) got there and what to expect against the Spurs.
Joins some exclusive lists
With his 39 points Thursday night, Durant joined a nice list. Durant trails only Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson for the most points per game averaged in potential series-clinching games.
Another impressive list? The last five players to record a 35-15-5 playoff game. Durant (twice), LeBron James (twice) and Carmelo Anthony. Durant finished Game 6 with 39 points, 16 rebounds and five assists.
And one more. Since 1990, only three players have posted 35-15-5 in series-clinching wins. Durant, Hakeem Olajuwon (twice) and Michael Jordan.
Overcomes slow start
Durant was held to only three points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first quarter. In the final three quarters, Durant dropped 36 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
Durant found his success by figuring out Matt Barnes. Barnes shut down Durant in Game 5 (Durant shot 2-of-14 against Barnes, including 0-of-11 on jump shots). And Barnes was on his way to doing it again.
In the first quarter, Durant was defended by Barnes the entire time, extending his shooting slump to 3-of-21 in the last five quarters against the Clipper stopper. But in the last three quarters, Durant scored 19 points against Barnes (7-of-10 shooting).
On to San Antonio
Durant and the Thunder move on to the Western Conference Finals to face the San Antonio Spurs. Durant and his teammates should be up to the challenge.
The Spurs "held" Durant to 26.3 points per game (his fewest against any opponent he faced more than twice) in their four meetings during the regular season.
However, the Thunder swept all four meetings against the Spurs, winning all four by at least six points.
LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers was beside himself after the Clippers’ Game 5 loss. He said the referees "robbed" the Clippers of the game and that awarding the ball to the Oklahoma City Thunder toward the end of the game on a controversial replay was a "series-defining" call.
It ended up being just that.
On Thursday night, the Thunder closed out the Clippers 104-98 to advance to the Western Conference finals, in which they will meet the San Antonio Spurs.
The Clippers were in control for much of the game, going up by 16 in the first half and 11 in the third quarter before the Thunder took their biggest lead of the game late in the fourth quarter. OKC was able to fend the Clippers off for the win, putting an end to the season for L.A.
How it happened: The question coming into Game 6 was how the Clippers would respond to the Game 5 loss. They answered much of any doubts early, taking a 14-point lead in the first quarter and a 16-point lead before halftime. They controlled the pace and tempo of the game and basically did what they wanted to do offensively. The Clippers led by as many as 11 points in the third quarter and looked like they would force a Game 7. Then, the Thunder tied the game at the end of the third quarter and, in the fourth quarter, took their first lead since the first quarter. OKC went up by as many as 10 points before holding off a late Clippers rally for the win.
What it means: The Thunder win the series in six games and advance to the Western Conference finals to play the Spurs.
Hits: Blake Griffin had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists before fouling out of the game with 2:27 left in the game. Chris Paul had 25 points and 11 assists, while J.J. Redick scored 16. DeAndre Jordan added nine points and 15 rebounds.
Misses: On a night when the Clippers were trying to extend their season and force a Game 7, they needed more from more players. They needed Matt Barnes to go better than 4-for-14 for nine points. They needed Jamal Crawford to score more than four points off the bench. And they needed Danny Granger to do, well, anything (0-for-3 for a single point).
Stat of the game: The Clippers dominated the Thunder in points in the paint (52-28), which was a goal coming into the game that didn’t matter in the end.
Up next: The Clippers season is over, and they will have the next five months to regroup, recover and reload before training camp starts.
But they weren't satisfied with just tying the series. The message from the coaching staff was simple: Steal another one in Oklahoma and put yourselves in a position to close out the series back home.
It looked as the Clippers were about to do exactly that for much of Tuesday's Game 5 ... before the Oklahoma City Thunder repaid the Clippers with a comeback that was just as improbable in a 105-104 win.
With the Clippers leading 104-97 with 44 seconds left, the Thunder closed with an 8-0 run, including three free throws by Russell Westbrook to clinch the win and take a 3-2 series lead.
How it happened: After sleepwalking through the first quarter of Sunday's game, falling behind by 22 points nine minutes in, the Clippers took a 15-point lead in the first quarter Tuesday and controlled the tempo and pace for most of the game, despite having multiple players in early foul trouble. The Clippers never trailed in the second half until the final seconds, when Westbrook's free throw put the Thunder ahead for good.
What it means: The Thunder have taken a 3-2 series lead and can clinch the series with a win Thursday in Los Angeles.
Hits: Blake Griffin had his first double-double of this season's playoffs, finishing with 24 points and 17 rebounds. Chris Paul had 17 points and 14 assists, Matt Barnes posted 16 points and 10 rebounds, Jamal Crawford tallied 19 points off the bench and J.J. Redick scored 16.
Misses: After being the star of Game 4 with 12 points in the fourth quarter, Darren Collison had only one point in 10 minutes Tuesday and was a team-worst minus-15 while on the court. Meanwhile, Paul had a game-high five turnovers.
Stat of the game: The Thunder outscored the Clippers on points in the paint (44-22) and had the Clippers' big men in foul trouble for most of the game.
Up next: The Clippers will play host to the Thunder in Game 6 at 7:30 PT Thursday night at Staples Center, as L.A. looks to stay alive in the series.
They will wake up with no more games to play and no escape from the fact that they play for a team with an unclear owner and an uncertain future.
On Sunday, while the Clippers were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series, Donald Sterling was telling Anderson Cooper on CNN that he is sorry for his comments and isn’t a racist. Shelly Sterling was telling Barbara Walters on ABC that she plans to divorce Donald and fight to keep the Clippers. And Dick Parsons, the former chairman of Time Warner and Citigroup, was flying to Los Angeles to assume his new job as the league-appointed interim CEO of the Clippers.
The Clippers’ season appeared on the brink of collapse when coach Doc Rivers called a timeout early in the fourth quarter and asked his players to look at each other and trust in each other. This game, this series and their season were not over.
"We all sat down and you looked at everybody’s face and nobody wanted to go home," Glen Davis said. "Everybody was saying, 'Hey, we’re going to win this game.'"
The Clippers were the longest of longshots to win on Sunday.
The Clippers have been involved in each of the three comebacks from 20-point deficits in postseason play and have won two of them.
The Spurs have the other win-- they rallied to beat the Clippers in 2012.
The final quarter
The Clippers trailed by 12 points at the start of the fourth quarter but outscored the Thunder by 14 to win. How did they do it?
They made as many shots in the restricted area in the fourth quarter (12 out of 14 attempts) as they did in the first three (12 of 25).
Instead of settling for jump shots, they attacked the lane in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points on drives and an additional 14 in transition.
Blake Griffin replaced DeAndre Jordan with 8:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Clippers down by 14 points, joining Chris Paul, Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger. During that time, the Clippers scored 33 points, shot 12 of 15 and outscored the Thunder by 16 points.
To try to combat this, the Thunder also went with a small lineup of Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. In the 5:47 they were on the court together, they were outscored 21-8, shooting 2 of 7 and committing three turnovers.
Durant scored five points in the fourth when guarded by Chris Paul, but also had three of his eight turnovers as the Clippers mounted their comeback.
Paint, bench scoring key
The Clippers outscored the Thunder 52 to 32 in the paint. The 20-point differential was the biggest of the series.
The Clippers' bench scored 40 points, the most it has scored in the series.
Clippers reserve Darren Collison scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. The 18 points was his second-highest total of postseason career.
Another way in which this was an unlikely win
The Clippers won despite making only 3 of 21 three-point shots.
In the last 25 seasons, teams that shot less than 14.5 percent from three-point range have won only three of 19 games.
The final shot
Westbrook missed the game-winning three-point attempt as time expired in Game 4.
Should Durant have had the ball in his hands in the final seconds?
Westbrook is now 1 for 8 on game-tying/go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of playoff games, while Durant is 5 of 15 on those shots.
Kevin Durant had one touch in the final 90 seconds of the game.
He had the ball for a total of one second in the final 90 seconds -- he was double-teamed as soon as he caught it and passed it right back out.
“You mean in the four times,” Rivers said. “Any of those stats don’t matter. If you said the Lakers or the Celtics, then that would matter. With us, at least those historical playoffs things, [it doesn’t resonate] here.”
It’s no secret the Clippers don’t have much of a playoff history. Even if they were to win Sunday’s Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers have lost five of six best-of-seven series when tied 2-2. And they have never advanced past the second round.
Doc Rivers cares less about the Clippers' meager playoff history and more about the tough lessons his players are learning in their series against the more-grizzled Thunder.
Yes, the Clippers have made great strides. But they still have yet to win more than one game in the second round.
There is only one player on their roster -- Glen Davis -- who has won a title, and he’s a reserve. Only one starter -- J.J. Redick -- has played in the NBA Finals.
At some point, the Clippers believe, they can get to the conference finals and the Finals and win a title. But their lack of experience in these moments is often exposed while going up against an Oklahoma City team that has enjoyed repeated success over the past five seasons, including a trip to the Finals.
“That’s the one advantage Oklahoma has had on us,” Rivers said. “They have several guys that have been all the way to the Finals, and they get it. They get the urgency of every single possession. We’ve been in and out of that throughout the playoffs. For us to keep going, we have to get that every-possession urgency.
“Offensively we scored 112 points [Friday], but we took off 15 possessions where we were running it but we weren’t running it crisply. We didn’t get to the right spots; we took shortcuts. Those are the things you just can’t do, and I think our guys are quickly understanding that. That point alone was beaten into us.”
It’s all part of the process and growth Rivers has talked about with the Clippers since arriving last summer. As much as he wanted to win a title in his first season, he also wanted the Clippers to take strides in learning how to become championship contenders.
When Rivers heard Paul call Game 4 a “must-win” game, he said that’s how Paul and the Clippers should approach every game and every possession in the postseason.
“I think Games 1, 2 and 3 were must wins,” Rivers said. “I honestly think that’s the urgency you have to play with in the playoffs, and I think we’ve been in and out of that. That’s, right now, the lessons we’re learning. You can still keep getting better through the playoffs. That’s why you don’t panic. You keep getting better and you keep pushing. There’s growth with every team.
“Miami will grow during the playoffs. You grow during the playoffs. You learn. You get beat and you learn, and you get better or you go home; it’s one of those two things. That’s part of the process. You have to be willing to take it, understand it, process it and move on.”
Despite being down 2-1 in their series against Oklahoma City, the Clippers weren’t too concerned after practice on Saturday. L.A. was down 1-0 to the Golden State Warriors and won its first-round series.
The Clippers also showed they could win on the road -- twice, including a Game 7 -- two years ago against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Clippers still feel good about their chances versus OKC, but those hopes largely rely on tying the series up on Sunday here at home.
“We put ourselves in a hole, but we just have to correct some of our mistakes,” Blake Griffin said. “We came back from this situation down 1-0. It has turned, but it’s not like we’re down 3-0. We’re down 2-1 and we got another game at home.
“We need to correct our mistakes, but it’s nothing to hang our heads about or be down about. We have a chance to even it up Sunday.”
The Thunder did something Friday that they had never done as a franchise. They won Game 3 on the road when the series was tied at a game apiece. They had lost the four previous times they played such a game.
Durant, Thunder dominant inside
Kevin Durant scored 30 points for the seventh time in this year’s playoffs. That’s as many as any other two players combined.
He was successful close to the basket on Friday, scoring 20 points from 10 feet and in, breaking his previous playoff high of 18 such points. He had only scored 12 such points in the first two games of the series.
Durant wasn’t the only player who was successful close to the basket. The Thunder scored a postseason high 52 points in the paint, outscoring the Clippers in the paint for the second straight game.
Russell Westbrook fell two rebounds short of recording his second straight triple-double, but he did reach double digits in assists in back-to-back playoff games for the first time in his career.
Paul comes up big in losing effort
In a losing effort, Chris Paul scored 21 points and handed out 16 assists without recording a turnover.
In the last 25 years, only two players have had 20 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers in a playoff game -- Magic Johnson in 1991 and Chris Paul twice (tonight and in 2008 against the Dallas Mavericks).
The only players to have more assists without a turnover in the playoffs in that span are Rajon Rondo (19 in 2009) and Magic Johnson (17 in 1991).
Looking ahead to Sunday
The Thunder are 1-0 when leading a best-of-7 series two games to one. The Clippers have lost all four series that the have trailed two games to one.
LOS ANGELES -- After two lopsided games for both teams to start the series, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder were due for a close game that would finally live up to the hype preceding this series.
That’s exactly what happened Friday, as the Thunder took a 2-1 series lead with a 118-112 win over the Clippers.
In a game that saw 13 ties and 19 lead changes, the Thunder were able to pull away late and take control of the game and the series, thanks to Kevin Durant’s 36 points and Russell Westbrook’s near triple-double of 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds.
How it happened: It was a seesaw game for most of the night with exchanging leads as the stars played like it for most of the evening. While Durant and Westbrook will get the headlines, the Thunder are at their best when their role players have big nights; and they did Friday. Serge Ibaka scored 20 points, Reggie Jackson posted 14 points and former Clipper Caron Butler also had 14.
What it means: The Thunder have taken a 2-1 series lead and can take a commanding 3-1 lead Sunday before the series returns back to Oklahoma City.
Hits: Chris Paul had 21 points and 16 assists and was far more aggressive than he was in Game 2 -- but still not what he was in the Game 1. Blake Griffin had his best game of the series, finishing with 34 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Matt Barnes had 14 points, and Jamal Crawford, fresh off his Sixth Man of the Year award, had 20 points.
Misses: After playing well in the first two games of the series, J.J. Redick was a nonfactor in Game 3, finishing with three points after missing his first five shots and going 1-for-6 from the field. Glen Davis also was a liability when he was on the court, finishing with two points and with plus/minus of minus-12.
Stat of the game: The Thunder had the advantage in points in the paint (52-48), rebounding (44-33) and fast-break points (19-14). Throughout most of the game, Oklahoma City held the advantage when it came to hustle plays and 50-50 balls.
Up next: The Clippers will take on the Thunder in Game 4 of their second-round series at 12:30 p.m. PT on Sunday in Los Angeles.
The Clippers snapped the Thunder’s six-game winning streak in Game 1s played at home with an easy win.
Difference-Maker: Chris Paul
Clippers point guard Chris Paul had arguably the best game of his NBA career, making 12 of 14 shots, including a career high eight three-pointers (he’d never made more than five in any game.
He finished with 32 points and 10 assists.
Paul is the first player to have 30 points, 10 assists and shoot 75 percent or better from the field in a playoff game since Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls in 1991.
Paul made pull-up jump shots against eight different Thunder defenders in the game.
Paul went 51 for 156 from three-point range in his first 53 games of the season. In the last 17, he is 52 for 102.
Durant and Westbrook can’t get it done
Kevin Durant scored 25 points for the Thunder, but the team was outscored by 26 points with him on the floor. The minus-26 was a career postseason worst for him.
Including playoffs, Durant has had a plus/minus of minus-10 or worse 109 times in his career, and the Thunder have lost every single one of those games.
Russell Westbrook finished with 29 points, but they were of little impact.
The Thunder are 0-4 this postseason when Westbrook scores more than 27 points (4-0 with 27 or fewer points).
Thunder don’t play their best defense
The Clippers shot 55 percent in the half court in Game 1. The Thunder held opponents to 43 percent shooting in half court situations during the regular season, fourth best in the NBA.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Chris Paul was the first player at Chesapeake Energy Solutions Arena on Monday.
Before the first team bus pulled into the arena, Paul had gotten into a cab and come over on his own almost four hours before the start of the game to shoot with Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Dave Severns.
Whenever Paul feels the need to shoot before or after a game, he will tell Severns and the two will go through a shooting drill that takes Paul around the court with Severns feeding him the ball.
Paul felt the need to come over early on Monday after feeling sluggish during the morning shootaround and falling asleep during the film session on Sunday.
“Me and Blake talked about it this morning at shootaround,” Paul said. “Obviously, we were still a little tight from traveling and we said at 8:30 we better be ready to go, so I came over here early before the game and got a lot of shots up.”
By the time Paul walked off the court in the afternoon, his injured right hamstring and right thumb were behind him. He felt better than he had since the postseason began and told his teammates that he would look to be more aggressive early in the game.
In one of the biggest games of his career, Paul had the best shooting night of his career. He finished with 32 points on 12-of-14 from the field and 8-of-9 from beyond the 3-point line. Paul made his first eight 3-point attempts and fell one shy of the single-game playoff record of nine 3s.
Never before had Paul made more than five 3-pointers in a game (a span of 665 regular season and postseason games). He hit six before halftime and eight before the end of the third quarter.
It didn’t matter who the Oklahoma City Thunder threw at him, Paul made a pull-up jumper against eight different Thunder defenders on the night.
Not only did Paul lead the Clippers to a 122-105 blowout of the Thunder in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series, he became the first player with at least 30 points and 10 assists on 75 percent shooting in a playoff game since Michael Jordan in 1991.
Paul’s teammates often tell him to be aggressive, but more often than not his comfort zone is in facilitating for his teammates and letting the game come to him. On Monday, however, he listened to his teammates, especially Blake Griffin, who looked at him early in the first quarter and repeatedly told him, “Be aggressive. Be aggressive.”
“I try to take what’s given to me and early, and I think the shot clock might have been running down on one of the first shots that I shot and I made it and I just kept trying to be aggressive,” Paul said. “I didn’t want to force it or anything like that. I’m one of those people that think when you’re hot and you take a bad shot, it’s gone. I just tried to be aggressive.”
Paul has been getting around-the-clock treatment from the Clippers training staff on his injured hamstring and thumb. Doc Rivers hinted before the series started that most people outside the Clippers’ locker room have no idea what Paul had to go through to play in the previous series against the Golden State Warriors.
“That’s just toughness,” Rivers said after Game 1 in Oklahoma City. “I thought he really set the tone for us at the start of the game. I just thought he went downhill a lot with the drives and that’s what we have been trying to tell him to do. Quick decisions and move the ball. I thought his being aggressive at the start of the game really set the tone throughout the game.”
Paul often jokes he’s not much of a 3-point shooter. But it has become part of his arsenal recently. After going 51-for-156 from 3-point range in his first 53 games of the season, Paul is now 52-of-102 in his past 17 games.
“That’s what I do,” Paul said when asked about his 3-point shooting. “That’s a lie. I don’t know. It was just one of those nights. I promise you it has to be a career high. This one will definitely go down in the record books for me. Don’t count on it for Game 2, I can tell you that.”
Paul was 10-for-12 for 28 points on pull-up jump shots Monday, including 8-of-9 from 3. And the only thing Paul’s older brother, C.J., was interested in talking about postgame were those two misses and Paul’s two turnovers.
“That’s the way it’s always been,” Paul said. “That’s the way it is.”
Paul is a perfectionist who usually only looks at the number of mistakes he made in a game. His eyes will almost always dart to the turnovers column; if there is a number greater than zero for him, that’s what he will focus on.
But Paul has taken a big-picture approach to this season and this playoff run. He read the book "The Way of the Champion," by Jerry Lynch, before the start of the postseason and talked about the need to take advantage of being on a championship team, not knowing how many opportunities he will have during his career.
“I’ve never been past the second round, and this is my ninth season. I remember the team I was on in 2008, when we lost Game 7 to the Spurs, and you feel like you’re always going to be back there. And that’s not the case,” Paul said. “The team here, I think is a special team. Not only do we have a good team, but also it’s fun to be around each other.”
Rivers doesn’t think this is a make-or-break postseason for Paul, but that he’s approaching it like it is certainly doesn’t hurt.
“I think Chris Paul is going to be in a lot of second-round series trying to get to the third round, and this is not going to be the last one,” Rivers said. “He has the urgency like this is going to be the last one, and I think that’s really important for the entire team that this is going to be the last one. And I think that’s really important for our entire team to have that urgency. You can’t assume anything in our league.”
Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this story.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- For the better part of three seasons the Los Angeles Clippers have continually talked about the “process.”
As in, it’s a “process” to become a championship team and it’s a “process” to learn what it takes to win games in the postseason. They spoke about it when Vinny Del Negro was the coach, and they’ve talked about it even more under Doc Rivers.
If they’re going to be a championship team, they have to go through that “process”; there are no shortcuts.
“Each team is different,” Rivers said. “There’s no one process. I wish there was. We’d all have a handbook and do it. But it’s about working together as a team and understanding you have to go through that process. It’s the defensive practices, the offensive executions and the end of the game executions.
“You have to go through that entire process and not get bored with it to get where you want to go. Our guys have bought in.”
It took this group three years. But they believed in the process and finally did something on Monday the Clippers had not done since 2006 and Chris Paul had not done since 2008: They won a game in the second round of the playoffs.
The Clippers’ 122-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals felt like more than just a one-game victory. It felt like a statement to the rest of the NBA that the Clippers are finally legitimate championship contenders and ready to take the next step toward advancing to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
How it happened: After a back-and-forth start to the first quarter when the Thunder went up by six points, the Clippers grabbed a 14-point lead before the end of the opening period and never looked back. Their lead would balloon to 24 points in the second quarter and 28 points in the third quarter. The Clippers were never really challenged. The Clippers’ second unit helped spark the run at the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter and finished with 38 points.
What it means: The Clippers have taken a 1-0 lead in the series and stolen home-court advantage from Oklahoma City.
Hits: Paul had said he wanted to be more aggressive in this series; he didn’t waste any time. He finished with 32 points in 27 minutes, hitting 12-of-14 from the field and 8-of-9 from 3. He also had 10 assists and two rebounds. Blake Griffin added 23 points and five rebounds. J.J. Redick had 12 points, while Jamal Crawford added 17 points off the bench.
Misses: No real misses on a night when the Clippers went up by as many as 28 points on the Thunder in the second half.
Stat of the game: Paul was 8-for-8 from the 3 line before missing one and finished one 3-pointer away from the single-game playoff record of nine 3s shared by Ray Allen, Jason Terry, Vince Carter and Rex Chapman.
Up next: The Clippers will take on the Thunder at Oklahoma City in Game 2 of their second-round series on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. PT.
After word spread that Rivers, pending league approval, would be going to L.A., the Clippers moved from 15-to-1 odds to win the NBA championship next season to 10-to-1, according to R.J. Bell, founder of PreGame.com.
The Clippers are only behind the Miami Heat (3-to-1) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (7-to-1) as favorites to win the title next season. The San Antonio Spurs are also 10-to-1. Bell takes a consensus of the sports books in Las Vegas for his odds.
“It’s a significant move,” Bell said. “There are only a handful of coaches in the NBA that would affect the odds to that degree, with Doc Rivers being one of them. Going from 15-to-1 to 10-to-1 is a pretty big move for a coach.”
If the Clippers were also able to land Kevin Garnett and/or Paul Pierce in addition to Rivers, they may be able to give the Thunder a run for their money as the favorites in the Western Conference to face the Heat in the Finals next season.
“If they were able to add Garnett or Pierce without giving up much, it would be significant,” Bell said. “I think Pierce is worth more than people think. He’s probably underrated. As it is, at 10-to-1, only the Heat and Thunder have clearly better odds than the Clippers.”
“Well, we split with the Heat 1-1, and we’re 2-1 against the Spurs,” he said.
He's right about that.
But those wins took place before Nov. 20, and happened within the first 10 games of the season. Wins are wins, but the current versions of the Heat and Spurs barely resemble the pre-Thanksgiving versions of either team.
“I don’t pay too much attention to right now,” Paul continued. “We’re still getting back. This isn’t the time when it matters.”
He’s wrong about that.
The playoffs haven’t begun, and the Clippers are nearly a lock for a top-four seed in the Western Conference, but now is the time when the games do begin to matter. Now is the time when you measure yourself against the best teams in your conference, when you learn who you are and what you really have.
The Clippers’ record (42-18) suggests they are in elite NBA company, along with the Spurs, Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Their win Thursday night against the Indiana Pacers, as well as a win over the New York Knicks two weeks ago, suggests they can play at a high level in a playoff-like atmosphere.
But will they be able to sustain that level, and raise it a notch, in a seven-game series with a team like San Antonio, which the Clippers face again in late March, or Oklahoma City, which comes to Staples Center on Sunday?
Consistency has been an issue of late. After a 16-0 record in December, the Clippers are 17-12, in a stretch that has included two four-game winning streaks and two four-game losing streaks. They dispatched a hot Pacers team on the road Thursday, but not before surrendering big leads at the end of the first half and late in the fourth quarter. They have easily handled showdowns with their crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, but they are 0-2 against the Thunder and recently lost to the Spurs by 26 and the Heat by 22, falling behind by at least 32 points in the second half of each game.
There are ways to explain the losses -- Paul and Chauncey Billups didn’t play in the previous Oklahoma City game and were rusty, just returning from injuries, in the Miami game. But explanations are cold comfort come playoff time, and sustained effort and focus is critical down the stretch, making Sunday’s game with Oklahoma City a crucial gauge of who the Clippers are and can be.
If they do prove ready for a deep postseason run, the biggest reason will be Paul, who looked healthy and in command against Indiana, willing the team through several patches when his teammates’ lack of focus on defense threatened to give away the game, and scoring the team’s final eight points to seal the deal.
Paul had 29 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds and was as aggressive, start to finish, as he has been all season.
“You’ve got to hate to lose,” he later told reporters.
Paul has gotten a lot of credit for turning the Clippers’ attitude and culture around in the past two seasons, and rightly so. But he must know early-season wins over the league’s best teams are meaningless in the spring.
Inspiring his team to play its best against the best, and his teammates responding, committing to play at the same intensity that he does, here and now, is all that matters.
At least until April.
When doing it all over again will matter even more.
LOS ANGELES -- There are, at most, a dozen players in the past three decades who have any idea of what it feels like to be able to do what Blake Griffin did to Kendrick Perkins Monday night.
To be able to jump as high as he can. To be able to take contact like he can. To take a moment near the top of his leap, look out over the rim, down at the hapless defender, and know that what comes next is going to make all 19,404 people in the arena lose control of themselves. Not to mention what it did to the Twitterverse.
But when no one is looking, or maybe, when he lets his guard down for a minute, a little bit of what's really going on in his head will come out.
"I looked up at the replay, I'm not going to lie, I did look up," Griffin said in a quiet moment after the crowd had cleared.
"I got lucky."
We've known each other long enough that he expects me to roll my eyes and give it back to him after a comment like that. It goes back to his first season, when he spent most of the year forcing himself to watch every game, but wanting to throw something -- anything -- at a wall when the Clippers would fall behind and he could do nothing to help as he sat in street clothes with a broken kneecap.
As frustrated as he was with missing his rookie season, with delaying the start of his NBA career, the hardest part was always dealing with the losses. During road games he would head to the Clippers' training facility and watch the game while shooting free throws off one leg. It's probably just a coincidence that his free throw shooting is still so bad.
I bring this up because Griffin is only half-kidding when he says he got lucky on his latest epic dunk.
The last time he did something like that, his Clippers were going nowhere fast. His dunk over New York Knicks center Timofey Mozgov in November 2010 might have been a coming-out party of sorts for him, but it came in a game the Clippers lost, which dropped them to 1-13 on the season.
"After that New York game last year, the excitement around here might have picked up," Griffin said. "But unfortunately we didn't win a lot of games."
Since then, everything has changed. The Clippers and Griffin got both very good, and very lucky about six weeks ago when they acquired Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets after a previous deal with the Los Angeles Lakers was rejected by NBA commissioner David Stern.
The timing of the deal was as good as Paul's timing on the pass that set up Griffin's monstrous dunk. So yes, in a way, Griffin did get lucky.
For as long as he plays, he will always prefer to focus on the pass that set him up rather than the dunk itself.
"That's just who he is," Clippers forward Brian Cook said. "He is always going to be this way and play this way."
Griffin knows how good he is, of course. But he also knows how much better he can still be. So when he says things like, ''I don't like to celebrate after plays like that. There's a lot of game left," I don't roll my eyes at him.
But when the room clears and he finally turns on his iPhone after the game, it's clear it meant a bit more to him than he is letting on.
"Mike Tyson just direct messaged me [on Twitter]," he said, a little embarrassed to be sharing.
And what did it say?
All around the locker room his teammates were still trying to find words to describe his thunderous dunk on Perkins.
"I don't know what it feels like to dunk like THAT on somebody," said Griffin's high-flying teammate DeAndre Jordan. "That was crazy. I'm still kind of in shock that it happened."
Jordan is Griffin's best friend on the team. He's kind of like his exuberant alter ego. The guy who emotes what Griffin has to be feeling, but is too serious and intense to let out.
"I probably would've started smiling if I was him," Jordan said. "But that's the goofy side of me. I probably wouldn't have been able to hold it in."
In this case, Jordan literally held Griffin in after the dunk. He bear-hugged him so tightly Griffin could hardly breathe.
He knew he'd done something special. That this dunk was more than just a good dunk.
That he would take a little extra satisfaction in it after the game.
"It's funny, I was watching 'SportsCenter' this morning and they were showing LeBron's dunk from the other night and some other dunks. And one of the guys said, 'I didn't really like the Mozgov dunk because he didn't really dunk it,'" Griffin said, still deciding if he was going to go all the way with this story.
"I guess this one was for him."
Griffin laughed at himself and the moment of self-satisfaction he had revealed. He wasn't relishing in it, just laughing at himself a little.
Which is probably the best way to describe what being able to do something like what he did to Perkins truly feels like.
One mountain scaled, the next one in sight up ahead.
"That was definitely a statement dunk," Jordan said. "A lot of people try to foul Blake before he takes off because they don't want to get dunked on. Or they try to foul him hard so he won't dunk on them again, but he's relentless."
Down the hall in the Thunder locker room, Perkins was taking his fate like a man. He'd tried to foul Griffin hard. Tried to send a message that there would be no easy dunks on his watch. Maybe even tried to fight back a little in a game in which the Thunder were started to get worked pretty good.
Griffin had won this round, but give Perkins credit for taking him on.
"Well, it happens. I mean, at the end of the day, if you're a shot-blocker, you're going to get dunked on," Perkins said. "It was a great play he made. Obviously, I wish I wasn't in it, but it was a great play, definitely.
"To be honest with you we've had the No. 1 easiest record in the NBA. This really was our first real test ... the first elite team we've played."
You get the feeling after talking to both sides that this one's going to come up again. This is only the beginning of what's going to be a heck of a rivalry in the Western Conference for the next few years.
Griffin may have won this one. But Perkins just served some notice that it's never going to be easy.
Here's guessing that's exactly the way Griffin likes it.