The Los Angeles Clippers notched what could have been the most significant victory in franchise history Sunday, riding an incredible fourth-quarter surge to steal Game 4 from the Oklahoma City Thunder by a final score of 101-99.
But the massive win won't matter if the Clips can't build on what they learned about themselves—and their suddenly vulnerable opponent.
For starters, it's only fair to admit there's not much competition for the "biggest win" in L.A.'s existence. The organization has only been to the conference semifinals three times (this trip being the third), and the stakes of this particular game made it uniquely meaningful.
All the Donald Sterling nonsense has made things difficult, and the overwhelming physicality of this series has lent the competition an air of urgency. Toss in the need to avoid a 3-1 deficit against a tough foe in OKC (basically a death sentence in a seven-game series), and it's hard to overstate the significance of the Clippers' big win.
Down 22 points early on and trailing by as many as 16 in the final period, it appeared the Clippers were about to be overrun by the Thunder. It didn't help that L.A. got caught up in its typical extracurricular chippiness early, even if Serge Ibaka's low blow to Blake Griffin in the opening minutes was the catalyst.
OKC built a big lead in the opening stanza and looked ready to ride its usual recipe of athleticism and star power to a decisive series lead.
At the end of the first quarter, down 32-15, the Clippers looked cooked.
Chris Paul led a minor comeback in the second, but that small surge seemed unsustainable. It was built on the wrong kind of energy, too much negative emotion and rooted in desperation. Paul was a little too feisty, a little too charged up.
It's easy to understand why; Paul sensed the urgency creeping in as the Thunder's lead grew. To cope, he became extra ornery and reacted to calls even more violently than usual. Down big early, it genuinely seemed like Paul understood what was at stake—on a grand scale.
He felt his title window closing ever so slightly. He recognized—even if only subconsciously—the ongoing Sterling ownership debacle could conceivably break this Clippers team apart. He saw a young team with a future of playoff runs on the floor and understood the importance of attacking it while he could.
But the Thunder weathered that mini storm, losing the second quarter by just six points despite Paul's furious, impassioned play. At halftime, it seemed like the Clips had taken their best shot and barely nicked Oklahoma City.
The Real Charge
After a ho-hum third period, the Clippers inexplicably summoned enough resolve to fight back a second time. And in this instance, L.A.'s surge wasn't built on desperate aggression alone; it also contained a little intellect.
Paul switched onto Kevin Durant, and the Thunder's offense bogged down. You'll never believe this, but Thunder head coach Scott Brooks failed to make any adjustments to get things moving.
As the Clippers built momentum with big stops and scores on the other end, Brooks didn't tweak the playbook. And as Darren Collison erupted for an unlikely 12-point fourth-quarter blitz, Brooks could only watch, impotent and befuddled.
OKC rarely got a good look and only managed to score when Russell Westbrook or Durant made a difficult individual play. On balance, both players were terrific, with KD going off for 40 points on 24 shots and Westbrook contributing 27 points to go along with his usual injection of pace and pressure.
But neither could do much as his teammates stood around in the late stages.
The last six minutes of Game 4 were a perfect example of how it takes two things for a big comeback to happen: One team has to take the game, while the other has to give it away. Paul and the Clippers handled the former, and Brooks' utter failure ensured the latter.
Turning Point or Flash in the Pan?
For this game to mean anything, the Clips have to follow through.
The worst thing in the world would be for this monumental effort to represent a death rattle for an L.A. team that can't match the raw talent on OKC's roster. It's entirely possible that the Thunder spend the rest of this series playing like they did in the first three-and-a-half quarters of Game 4. Barring another late collapse, that'll be more than enough to take two more games from the Clippers.
But the Clips learned something on Sunday, and it's a lesson they probably should have known coming into the series: All you have to do is hit OKC with a wrinkle that forces it to slow down, think and adjust.
Maybe that wrinkle is leaving Paul on Durant going forward. Maybe it's just any little strategic move that demands a counter. We know now—more than ever—that Brooks isn't great with on-the-fly alterations.
If he were, OKC would be up 3-1 right now.
Moving ahead, L.A. must continue to play with the fire it showed in the second and fourth quarters on Sunday. But it must also manage its emotions so as not to get caught up in the counterproductive jostling and shoving that will definitely mark the upcoming games in this matchup.
If you thought things were chippy before, get ready for a double-down on the elbows, flops and subtle love taps.
Paul, in particular, plays right on the borderline of useful aggression and destructive violence, and we saw him go over it in the second quarter of Game 4—only to recover in time for the decisive fourth-quarter run.
More than anything, we learned OKC has no answer when the Clippers do something a little weird. And it turns out the Clips' changes don't even have to be that unusual to be effective.
All L.A. has to do now is keep forcing Brooks to coach a little. Sure, the Thunder's talent may yet win out. But the Clippers' biggest win in franchise history can mean something if they use it to build toward the organization's first-ever trip to the conference finals.
The Clippers did something desperate to win Game 4, switching Paul onto Durant and sometimes sending quick double-teams in support. That needs to be the model going forward.
If OKC doesn't come up with a suitable response—and it must be something more than "let KD exploit a matchup all by himself"—the Clippers will be in great shape. More importantly, this historically significant win will actually count for something.
The ball is in Brooks' court now. We'll see if he drops it.
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