First the Clippers couldn’t hold onto the ball. Then their 13-point halftime lead evaporated.
Finally, in front of a raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd stoked by a years-old grudge, “we lost our composure,” coach Doc Rivers said.
All the momentum from the Clippers’ swaggering start to this season screeched to a halt Tuesday amid a 128-110 defeat to the Oklahoma City Thunder in which tempers flared as their first-half lead crumbled.
With owner Steve Ballmer watching from a front-row seat, the Clippers turned the ball over eight times in the third quarter as the Thunder began a 20-0 run that became a 39-10 advantage in the quarter. Teammates and coaches yelled at one another to play faster.
A sold-out crowd of 18,203 that already was irate over a disparity in first-half fouls in the Clippers’ favor transformed into a din. Defending a favorite son one quarter later, they somehow grew louder.
Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, who finished with 32 points and eight assists, lost control of his dribble in the fourth quarter when Clippers guard Patrick Beverley dove for the loose ball and made contact with his knees. Westbrook walked toward his bench at the other end as he and Beverley continued talking amid a cascade of boos.
As they moved closer to one another, arena security, police officers, officials and teammates stepped between. Both were called for technical fouls, with Beverley assessed an additional flagrant one.
“Somebody walked to our bench doing all that cappin’ stuff,” said Beverley, who scored four points with six assists and seven rebounds. “I don’t know what that is. He walked to our bench doing this and all that. I don’t know. Things went haywire from there, of course. Two competitors, no one is going to back down. No one did.”
Rivers believed it was not a “dirty play” because Beverley had gotten to the ball first. Teammates backed up their starting guard.
The moment had been building for five years and three quarters.
Westbrook has undergone multiple surgeries on his right knee since 2013, when he tore his meniscus during a playoff series against Houston after bumping knees with Beverley. After another recent surgery, he returned Oct. 21. Thunder fans have never forgotten nor forgiven. The league investigated an exchange between Beverley and a Thunder fan sitting courtside during the 2017 playoffs. Tuesday, a man sitting in the second row nearly behind the Clippers bench exchanged words with Beverley in the first quarter and again after halftime. Beverley responded that it had happened “years ago, bro, let it go,” shaking his head.
As fans seethed, Westbrook scored. Guarded by Beverley in the first quarter he attacked to the rim on three of his first four shots and rocked an imaginary baby in his arms as he walked back on defense.
“Got little kids on you, that’s what happens,” he said, explaining the gesture. “Little guards, gotta rock ’em.”
Beverley responded with his own rock-the-cradle after scoring in the second half, staring first at his bench, then into the crowd”.
“I don’t know how that was a flagrant,” Rivers said. “They have bad blood. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as they keep it clean. I thought both of them did. All that talk, you know, whatever. But there’s nothing wrong with not liking someone in the league. It’s allowed in this day and time. And there’s nothing wrong with it as long as guys keep it clean and play hard, play physical. It reminded me of 20 years ago.”
The moment overshadowed a first half in which the Clippers shot 55%, including 54.5% on three-pointers, and beat back every Thunder surge. Trailing by 11 with 11 minutes to play in the second quarter, the Thunder began a 9-0 run against a three-guard lineup of Clippers. Forward Tobias Harris, who scored two points in the first quarter, was reinserted and scored nine points as his team built a 67-54 lead.
Danilo Gallinari scored 23 points, the most of any half in his career, and finished with a team-high 27 in 26 minutes.
“The first half we couldn’t have played a more beautiful offensive or defensive game,” Rivers said. “Second half, it was like we forgot all about it. We came out and one pass, shot, one pass, shot, no dribble penetration, all jump shots, all contested shots. Fouled a lot. It was 11-0 in free throws. That happens, you’re going to lose.”