One thought kept running through Darren Collison’s head in the fourth quarter, driving him toward the unlikeliest of destinations.
His team trailed by 16 points Sunday at Staples Center. His first season as the Clippers’ backup point guard looked like it might be over in a couple of days.
His mind wouldn’t accept the possibility of being eliminated Tuesday in Oklahoma City.
“The whole time I’m thinking, we can’t be down 3-1,” Collison said. “We just can’t be down 3-1 going to Oklahoma.”
The Clippers won’t face that predicament, because Collison became the catalyst of an epic comeback, leading his team to an improbable 101-99 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Collison’s consecutive layups in the final minute touched off a wild celebration after Russell Westbrook missed a three-pointer, leaving the series tied at two games apiece.
Clippers forward Matt Barnes wrapped Collison in a bear hug from behind and lifted him off the court. Clippers Coach Doc Rivers placed an arm on Collison’s shoulder and offered a few encouraging words. Teammate Ryan Hollins patted him on the head.
Collison deserved every possible accolade after scoring 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter as part of a small lineup that came up huge for the Clippers, who outscored the Thunder, 38-24, over the final 12 minutes.
“You just got to love a guy like that who plays with so much heart and never gives up,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “Game ball goes to Darren Collison.”
Collison played the entire fourth quarter, teaming with guards Paul and Jamal Crawford as well as forwards Blake Griffin and Danny Granger over the final 8 minutes 44 seconds. Oklahoma City countered with a lineup that included only one big man, forward Serge Ibaka.
“I’m not sure we ever used that lineup,” Rivers said. “But that group won the game for us tonight.”
The small-ball approach allowed the Clippers to attack the basket on offense and double-team Kevin Durant on defense. With a little more than three minutes left and Paul guarding Durant near the three-point line, Collison came over to trap Durant and tipped his pass to Crawford, who found Collison in transition for a dunk that pulled the Clippers to 90-89.
Over the final few minutes, Collison smartly continued to drive for high-percentage shots on a day his team made only three of 21 three-pointers.
“A lot of times I could have shot the three,” Collison said, “but I wanted to make sure we had good shot selection.”
He pump-faked Durant into the air near the three-point line and drove past Ibaka for a layup that gave the Clippers a 99-97 lead with 59 seconds remaining.
After a Westbrook miss, Collison flipped in a breakaway layup high off the backboard to extend the Clippers’ lead to four points with 32 seconds left. He yelled and pumped his arms as Oklahoma City called a 20-second timeout.
Predictably, Westbrook came right back at Collison, his onetime UCLA teammate who once nudged him into a reserve role during Westbrook’s sophomore season. Westbrook drove past Collison for a layup that made it 101-99 with 27 seconds to go.
Westbrook had a chance to win the game after Griffin missed a layup, but his 25-footer — shot with Collison’s hand in his face — bounced off the rim.
Game over. Series tied.
It was exactly the kind of moment that had prompted Collison to sign with the Clippers last summer instead of accepting a bigger contract to play elsewhere.
“I texted B.G.: ‘I want to come here regardless of the financial reasons,’” Collison said. “I didn’t care who was on the team. I thought this team had a good shot of competing for a championship.”
Their title odds just improved considerably thanks to a gutty former Bruin whose team’s season is no longer in ruins.