Doc Rivers was in a surprisingly jovial mood before Wednesday's game for a coach whose undermanned team was about to take on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook, Rivers said with admiration, is "a mad dude. Other than tonight, I love watching him because I don't know if he ever takes a possession off." As for the Clippers' challenging month, Rivers had a quip and a smile for that too. "I don't mind that it's a tough schedule. In some ways that could be good for us. I'm just not sure what way," he said.
Rivers had the first laugh Wednesday and the last one too.
Unable to handle the aggressive Thunder and down by 22 points in the second quarter and by 20 in the third, the Clippers pulled out an improbable 103-98 victory thanks to the energy and leadership of their reserves. Their largest comeback this season moved them within 1 1/2 games of the No. 3-seeded Thunder in the West playoff rankings and triggered a cascade of cheers and fist pumping on the Staples Center court and in the stands.
"It almost gave the starters, for a change, a blueprint on how we had to play the game," Rivers said of the inspired efforts of his son, Austin, who was back in the lineup after an injury, as well as Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson. "I thought Oklahoma played harder and more aggressive for 2 1/2 quarters, really three quarters, and then the bench came in and did it back at them. Jamal [Crawford], Wes, Austin, they were attacking. They missed layups, but what they were doing, it changed the game."
They're still missing Blake Griffin, though Rivers said he is close to being medically cleared after fracturing his hand in a fight with team assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, and they didn't have reliable defensive forward Luc Mbah a Moute, who's recovering from a laceration near his eye that required stitches. But they managed to hold Durant to two-for-five shooting in the fourth quarter and Westbrook to two points and the Thunder to five-for-20 shooting, no small feat.
This was the Clippers' second victory this season over the teams ahead of them in the West. They're 0-3 against No. 1 Golden State, 1-1 against San Antonio and now 1-1 against Oklahoma City. "You can't hope to win games like this every night," Doc Rivers said. "It's good to get one where we really didn't have it for 2 1/2 quarters."
They play the Thunder twice more this season, so it's now entirely possible for the Clippers to pass Oklahoma City and become the No. 3 seed, which carries the potential advantage of delaying a meeting with Golden State until the conference final instead of in the second round, the Clippers' eternal stopping point. Finishing third probably would pit the Clippers against the Spurs in the second round. "San Antonio is no peach, you know," Rivers said.
A few weeks ago, after Magic Johnson tweeted that he liked the Clippers' chances of reaching the West finals if they moved up to No. 3, Rivers seemed to agree. "I think Magic's brilliant on this tweet." On Wednesday, though, Rivers insisted he disregards that line of thinking.
"I don't pay much attention to it. I don't actually believe that. I believe you play 'em when you play 'em and you have to be ready to play them," he said. "You've got to win the first round first, and then you've got to get to the second round and play one of the two. You can go either way with that."
To illustrate his point, he cited his 2010 Boston Celtics, who were the No. 4 playoff seed.
"We weren't looking to play Cleveland in the second round. They were the No. 1 seed. We were looking to get our guys rest, and by doing that, it dropped us to the second round playing them, and I thought we were as fresh as we could be. And so that was a good thing for us," Rivers said, referring to the Celtics' victories over Miami and Cleveland en route to winning the East championship before losing to the Lakers in the Finals.
"The bottom line is when we play any of those teams, we have to play great."
They weren't great Wednesday, but their resilience and energy gave them the last happy laugh on a night that seemed to have all the makings of an ugly joke.