Doc Rivers was arguing for a call midway through the third quarter Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena when referee Natalie Sago turned to face him.
“You’re done,” she said, and the Clippers’ coach seethed, if this time silently.
Reasons were many why Rivers’ team should have been done for the night at that moment too. They’d already committed 20 turnovers and watched Oklahoma City turn them into 15 points. Within a two-minute stretch of the third quarter both Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley were called for technicals by Sago while arguing calls. Forty seconds into the fourth quarter, the Clippers trailed by 17 points, their largest deficit.
Yet the Clippers never quite went away despite committing a season-high 26 turnovers, trailing by six points with 50 seconds remaining in the game.
A missed jumper by Danilo Gallinari with 39 seconds left and two missed free throws by Montrezl Harrell eventually doomed their comeback in what became a 110-104 Thunder victory, but Rivers left the arena more encouraged than could be expected from a coach who’d just witnessed his sixth loss in the last eight games.
He’d spotted something that didn’t appear in the box score – something he hadn’t seen in more than a week.
“I just liked our energy, our spirit. It was just good to see. I thought for whatever reason our team returned today and so moving forward I think we’ll be in good shape.”
The Clippers (17-12) returned to Los Angeles believing they’d recovered a bit of the play that propelled them to a surprising start in October and November.
They shot 50% from the field and 52% on three-pointers. Gallinari tied a season high with 28 points, Tobias Harris added 22 and Harrell had his best game in nearly two weeks by scoring 21 off the bench.
“Seeing the ball go in for a lot of guys tonight was a good sign, too, of that confidence that we’ve been missing for some time now,” Harris said. “I thought as a team everybody, including myself, had too many turnovers and just mentally we let the referees get to us and let that disrupt our composure that we’ve got to be better at. I think we take away a couple of those things it would have been a great game for us, overall.”
The Clippers stayed in the game early in part because of a switch by Rivers to stagger the minutes of Gallinari and Harris. With instant-offense reserve Lou Williams out with a hamstring injury and Harrell in the midst of a six-game scoring slump, the Clippers desperately needed a reliable scoring option with their second unit. So Rivers inserted reserve guard Sindarius Thornwell early in the first quarter for Harris, and reinserted Harris for Gallinari in the second quarter.
“We have to put one of those two in the second unit and I thought it was good overall,” Rivers said.
Sanguine as they were afterward, the Clippers were constantly irate at the officiating during the game, and Sago in particular. After Bradley and Beverley’s technicals, Rivers sat on the scorer’s table with his mouth agape, unsure how to respond after already being told to stop.
“Their defense is solid but they got away with a lot of off the ball stuff tonight but it’s sometimes the way it goes sometimes when a team imposes their physicality,” Harris said.
Unlike an Oct. 30 loss at Oklahoma City in which the Clippers folded during a one-sided third quarter, the Clippers responded Saturday after falling behind big early in the fourth quarter, scoring 20 of the game’s next 28 points and holding Oklahoma City scoreless for two minutes to trail 98-91 with fewer than five minutes to play.
The Thunder extended their lead to 12 with 3:05 to play, only to see the Clippers cut that in half within the next two minutes.
Harrell’s missed free throws continued his tortured season at the line, where he is shooting 60%. The misses gave the ball back to Oklahoma City with 18.2 seconds remaining leading by six. The ball was inbounded to Paul George, who finished with a game-high 33 points. Surrounded by Harris and Beverley but not fouled, George saw Jerami Grant cutting toward the rim and passed for a game-clinching dunk.
The Thunder added a victory. The Clippers felt they’d gained something too.
“Obviously no moral victories but it was a game that kind of provided a spark for us that we’ve been missing,” Harris said, “and that we need.”