Grit. Resolve. Determination. Mental fortitude.
When the Clippers’ season edged ever so close to the brink, it took every ounce of those attributes, and more, to escape with a thrilling 101-99 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of their NBA playoff series Sunday at Staples Center.
The Clippers had to overcome their largest deficit of the season after they fell into a 22-point hole in the first quarter.
They had to overcome a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter and a potential game-winning three-point attempt by Russell Westbrook that rimmed out in the final second.
They had to use a small lineup of 6-foot Chris Paul, 6-foot Darren Collison, 6-5 Jamal Crawford, 6-8 Danny Granger and 6-10 Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter to overcome the Thunder and deadlock the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals at two games apiece.
Now it’s a best-of-three series.
“They’re seething right now,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said about the Thunder. “They had an opportunity to go up 3-1 and now it’s an even series.
“We were almost on the mat and we got back off of it. We’re back up and now we’re all even.”
The Clippers got even because Collison played such a pivotal role in the fourth quarter.
He attacked the Thunder on offense, applied full-court pressure on defense and took over the game when the time called for it, helping the Clippers outscore Oklahoma City, 38-24, in the fourth.
Collison had 12 of his 18 points in the final period.
His driving layup off a Paul assist broke a tie and gave the Clippers the lead for good at 99-97 with 59.9 seconds left.
Another driving layup by Collison off an assist from Crawford gave the Clippers a 101-97 lead with 32.8 seconds left.
“Seemed like all game long, we weren’t making it hard for them, weren’t giving them enough resistance,” said Collison, who was four for six from the field in the fourth quarter. “We finally made a lot of plays on the defensive end [and] got the offense going.”
The diminutive Paul took on the biggest defensive assignment of the game in the fourth quarter when he guarded the 6-9 Kevin Durant, the NBA’s most valuable player.
Durant finished with 40 points on 12-for-24 shooting, but he had to work hard to score his 10 points in the fourth.
“I just tried to make it as tough as possible for him,” said Paul, who had eight of his 23 points in the fourth to go along with 10 assists. “He still finished with 40. I just tried to crowd him.”
The Clippers also sent more double teams at Durant, forcing him to become a passer.
“The Clippers didn’t do nothing,” Durant responded when asked how he was slowed down in the second half. “They tried to double team. It was our defense. Offensively we were good.”
For three quarters, the Clippers were offensively challenged. They were especially dreadful from three-point range, where they made only three of 21 attempts.
Jamal Crawford hit only two of eight three-point shots, but he made one when the Clippers needed it most, giving them their first lead of the game at 97-95 with 1:23 to play.
“Our life was on the line,” said Crawford, who scored 18 points off the bench. “We go down 3-1 in the series, that’s it.”
Not until Westbrook (27 points) missed his three-point attempt just before time expired could the Clippers breathe a sigh of relief, knowing they still had an opportunity to win the series.
The Clippers will host Game 6 Thursday night.
“It’s an obvious thing, but [down] 3-1 compared to 2-2 is a huge, huge difference,” said Griffin, shaking his head after he had scored 25 points. “There’s nothing really else to say.”