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Thunder eliminates Clippers from playoffs, 104-98

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The Clippers, in the midst of one of the most unusual postseasons in the history of the game, saw their hopes of advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time come to a painful ending at Staples Center on Thursday night.

Their 104-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals ends their season. The Thunder won the best-of-seven series, 4-2.

The Thunder will play the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, beginning Monday night in San Antonio.

This postseason has been one of the most tumultuous ever with their owner, Donald Sterling, fined $2.5 million and banned for life for making controversial comments about blacks. Follow that with unbelievable television interviews and a vow to defy the NBA and you have enough distractions for a lifetime.

The Thunder were led in Game 6 by Kevin Durant, who had 39 points and 15 rebounds. Even though Russell Westbrook was absent for most of the game, the All-Star point guard finished with 19 points and 12 assists.

Chris Paul led the Clippers with 25 points and 11 assists.

Now, it’s not as if the Clippers gave up after the Thunder had an 11-point lead late in the fourth quarter. They closed the deficit to four points with a little more than a minute to play. But it wasn’t to be on this night.

The Clippers and Thunder entered the final quarter tied, 72-72, but the Thunder sprinted to a four-point lead early before the Clippers were able to tie it, 80-80, with 7:54 to play. Then the Thunder went on a 7-0 run with baskets by Durant and Westbrook and a three-pointer by Durant to take a seven-point lead with 6:46 to play.

The last two games, seven points in this series might as well mean the teams were tied. Or maybe not.

Reggie Jackson came back down the court and made a three-pointer to make it a 10-point game. But, back-to-back baskets by Paul closed the Clippers' deficit to six points with 5:12 to play.

The Clippers fell behind by nine points, 93-84, with 4:29 to play after a basket by reserve center Steven Adams. After a DeAndre Jordan put-back basket closed it to seven, the referees fell in love with offensive fouls, claling them on Westbrook, Paul and Griffin.

Another fine in Clippers Coach Doc Rivers' future?

With 2:27 left in the fourth quarter, Griffin committed his sixth foul, sending him to the bench with 22 points on 8-for-20 shooting as well as eight rebounds and eight assists. Westbrook made both foul shots and the lead was 11.

And on this night there would be no miracle comeback.

Clippers 72, Thunder 72 (end of third quarter)

Well, it’s now a 12-minute game.

And, if the Clippers don’t win this final (perhaps?) quarter their season will end tonight at Staples Center. Or if they win, they will move on to play a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday night in Oklahoma City.

The Clippers and Thunder are tied, 72-72, after three quarters in this best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series. The Thunder lead the series, 3-2.

So, what is it the Clippers need to do to win this game?

--Blake Griffin has to stay a force on offense. He has scored 18 points in the game. But perhaps more interesting has been his eight assists.

--DeAndre Jordan has to stay in the game grabbing rebounds, something he didn’t do in Game 5. He has seven points and 11 rebounds.

--J.J. Redick has to stay hot. He has 14 points and a pair of three-pointers through three quarters.

--And, where is Jamal Crawford? The best sixth man in the league has to provide something off the bench. He has 2 points in 9 1/2 minutes.

The Thunder closed it to within five points with about seven minutes left in the third quarter when Kevin Durant made a three-pointer from about six feet behind the three-point line. No way to defend that. It was his 10th point of the quarter.

Meanwhile Russell Westbrook continues to struggle, going 2 for 11 from the field with only 9 points.

It was a very evenly played quarter with neither team able to pull off a big run. However, the Thunder suffered a blow when power forward and defensive stalwart Serge Ibaka left the court midway through the period with what was described as a left calf injury. His return was doubtful.

The Thunder closed with a 7-0 run off of two baskets by Reggie Jackson and a three by Nick Collison.

Clippers 50, Thunder 42

At the start of this series, most pundits saw this going seven games. Based on 24 minutes of play tonight, they might be right. The Clippers were showing both poise and confidence, obviously not shattered by losing Game 5 after holding a seven-point lead with 42 seconds left to play.

But, who’s kidding? There is always that final quarter.

The Clippers lead the Thunder, 50-42, at halftime of Game 6 at Staples Center. The Thunder lead the best-of-seven series, 3-2, in this Western Conference semifinal.

If the Clippers lose, the season is over. If they win, it’s a Game 7 on Sunday night in Oklahoma City.

Not surprisingly, Blake Griffin leads the Clippers with 12 points on an average 4-for-10 shooting night. J.J. Redick has 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting, making both of his shots from beyond the three-point line. Chris Paul has seven points with six assists.

Kevin Durant was having another off night shooting for the Thunder, making only 4 of 12 but still leading the team with 14 points. The shocker is Russell Westbrook, who has missed all four of his shots and has only two points at halftime.

The Clippers were shooting 44% from the field, the Thunder 36%. So, all said, the Thunder was lucky to only be down by eight.

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers stuck with his usual rotation starting the second quarter with mostly the second team. And they held serve pretty well, keeping the lead at 12 points.

With most of the starters back in the game the Clippers went on a 6-0 run on two baskets by Darren Collison and one by Griffin to take a 16-point lead, 39-23.

But it didn’t take long for Durant to check in with back-to-back three-pointers and the Thunder had cut the deficit to eight points, 41-33. Did we say back-to-back? Durant made another three, making it a personal 9-0 run to cut the Clippers' lead to five.

Then the Clippers went on their 9-0 run to get the lead back to 14 points, 50-36. It started with a J.J. Redick three, then one of two free throws from both Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (this made him 4 for 19 for the series) and then two free throws by Paul and a slam by Jordan.

It was the Thunder’s turn, who rolled off a 6-0 run on a Reggie Jackson basket, two free throws by Jackson and two more by Durant to cut it to eight.

Clippers 30, Thunder 16 (end of first quarter)

The Clippers didn’t start too badly in its first elimination game of this series, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder by 14 points after the first quarter tonight at Staples Center. But as we learned the last two games, it’s really only the fourth quarter that matters.

This is a must-win game for the Clippers, who are down, 3-2, in this best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal playoff series. If it goes to Game 7, it will be back in Oklahoma City on Sunday night.

Now, it’s a little too early to say this game is an alternative universe but after one quarter the Clippers' second-leading scorer was Glen (Big Baby) Davis with six points. Blake Griffin leads the Clippers with nine points. Chris Paul and Matt Barnes each have five.

But equally as crazy was Kevin Durant with only three points and Russell Westbrook with none. That’s right, a zero.

Paul seemed to be playing within his game with no hangover from his disastrous finish in Game 5.

The key to a Clippers win remains Griffin’s ability to shoot from mid-range and to penetrate the key. In the first 4 1/2 minutes of the quarter he had established his game by scoring seven points, forcing Oklahoma City Coach Scott Brooks to call a time out with the Clippers leading by seven points, 15-8.

The teams then played sloppily the next few minutes. How sloppy? Westbrook committed his second foul with 4:10 left in the quarter against Paul, who made two free throws to give the Clippers a 20-10 lead.

The Thunder went on a mini-scoring run with four unanswered points, the second basket by Durant, who missed his first five shots.

Then Davis and Thunder reserve center Stephen Adams exchanged baskets. And how often can you say that?

The Clippers then went on an 8-0 run with a basket by Davis, two free throws by Griffin, a bucket by Barnes and then another basket by Davis.

So shocked was the explosion by Davis that the ESPN broadcast, for those not at Staples, gave the basket to the Thunder. It was corrected. Now, can the Clippers stay on course?

Pregame

Everyone knows what’s at stake. Everyone remembers what happened in Game 5, a Clippers meltdown for the ages. And most of all, everyone knows if the Clippers lose Game 6 tonight at Staples Center the off-season will have started.

So, what’s there to talk about?

You have to figure Chris Paul is going to come out tonight against the Oklahoma City Thunder with something to prove. He was the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Clippers 47-second collapse. But, he took it all on his shoulders and offered no excuses.

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers blamed the officials for a call with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter in which they gave the ball to the Thunder after a video replay showed the ball went off the hands of Thunder guard Reggie Jackson. Should have been Clippers ball. But, Rivers theorized, the officials were doing a make-up call for having missed a foul by Clippers forward Matt Barnes on that play.

Rivers called the decision possibly a “series-defining call.” And he didn’t mean that in a good way.

Honesty can have its pitfalls.

On Thursday, Rivers was fined $25,000 by the league for criticizing the officials.

All of which leaves us with the real scouting report. Who’s got the whistles tonight?

Monty McCutchen is the crew chief, with James Capers and Ed Malloy joining him.

This will be McCutchen’s 11th postseason appearance, most in the league. The home team has won 70% of the games he’s officiated, according to NBAstuffer.com, a website that tracks such things.

McCutchen has called two Clippers games this postseason, Game 6 against Golden State and Game 2 against Oklahoma City. The Clippers lost both of those games.

For Malloy, tonight will be his ninth postseason game and the home team has won 50% of those games. He has had the whistle for two Clippers games, Nos. 3 and 7 against Golden State. The Clippers won both those games.

And, finally this will be Capers' ninth game in the postseason. The home team has lost both of his games when he was on the crew. The home team has won three of the six games he officiated as the lead referee, which he is not tonight. He called Game 5 against Golden State as the crew chief. The Clippers won.

What does this tell? Nothing really. But we’ll likely know if the Clippers and Thunder will be playing a Game 7 at about 10:30 tonight.

--John Cherwa

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Here's a look at how the two teams match up:

Key matchup

Paul is leader of the Clippers. He dug the hole; he needs to dig his team out.

Through five games against the Thunder, Paul has averaged 22.0 points with 12.2 assists while shooting 51.2% from the field and 44.8% from three-point range.

In Game 1, Paul destroyed the Thunder, making his first eight three-point attempts. It may take another special night for the All-Star point guard to help force a Game 7.

Thunder point guard Westbrook has also had a tremendous series, averaging 29.6 points with 8.2 assists on 52.6% shooting from the field and 40.9% from behind the arc.

Westbrook scored 38 points in Game 5, including the final three from the line, which sealed the Thunder victory.

X-factor

Paul and Westbrook may cancel each other out. So too could forwards Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant.

Game 6, and ultimately the series, may be decided by the role players.

For the Clippers, those are players such as Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison, Danny Granger and Glen Davis.

The Thunder need big nights from Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson.

Outlook

The Clippers had the series in hand but are vulnerable. They'll give the Thunder everything they can handle, with hopes of returning to Oklahoma City for one final game.

eric.pincus@gmail.com

Twitter: @EricPincus

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