By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES – His face worn with the exhaustion of recent weeks, the top button of his white dress shirt undone and the burgundy tie splashed with silver and light blue loosened, Doc Rivers dropped into a chair at the front of the room for the post-game press conference.
He let out a big exhale.
“Would you like to make an opening statement or go right to questions?” the Clippers’ coach was asked at the start.
“No, I want a beer,” Rivers said, drawing laughter from the gathered media even if he wasn’t joking.
He was spent. All the Clippers were. It was a physical Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, with Blake Griffin playing the final 8:44 with five fouls and being sent in by Rivers with one instruction, to play with the energy of someone with one foul. Chris Paul gave away nine inches and some 55 pounds while defending Kevin Durant and lived to tell. Griffin got a fist to the groin from Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka.
The Clippers came back to somehow beat the Thunder 101-99 on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center and tie the series 2-2 because they were scrappy, not because they were flashy. If this was Lob City, it was the working-class section.
Paul on Durant? “That’s called desperate coaching,” Rivers said. The Clippers were anxiously searching, even reaching, for something to administer CPR.
Scoring 38 points in the fourth quarter to win? The defense was the offense. L.A. went small — Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Paul, Danny Granger and Griffin most of the final period — and forced turnovers that became fast-break baskets.
The new energy in the final period? Rivers hoped that trapping more would generate the turnovers, but he also saw that it energized the Clippers to be more aggressive than they had been most of the game that existed before in an alternate universe, the one where the Thunder owned the arena, were coasting to a second win in a row and about to head home to close out the series Tuesday night.
“I think we just willed this one,” Paul said.
Dug deep for it.
The Clippers season was quickly — and, under the circumstances, easily — slipping away, falling into a 12-point hole with only 4:51 gone and having that turn into 22 points, at 29-7, after 9:01. There was zero atmosphere from the home crowd. A 3-1 deficit against a very good team was looming large. And when L.A. did close within 39-35 about midway through the second quarter, the Thunder seemed to slam the door with another demoralizing surge that restored order with a 15-point lead with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter. The cushion was still 12 heading into the fourth.
Rivers’ lineup to start the most important 12 minutes of the season was Glen Davis, Collison, Granger, Crawford and DeAndre Jordan. Paul replaced Davis after 53 seconds. Griffin went in for Jordan and the closest thing to a last stand, given the long odds of beating the Thunder three times in a row with two of the games in OKC, was set for the final 8:44.
“We really locked in on defense,” Crawford said. “We were down 22 at one point and we kept believing and never gave up. We refused to lose. It was a big-time win. I’m not sure that win happens on the road. Like I said, the crowd was terrific tonight and they played a huge part.”
Paul was on the court for all but 3 minutes 2 seconds. Griffin went 40 minutes, Crawford 34, or about nine more than his playoff average. Rivers was weary and he didn’t walk into a size mismatch or get told by Ibaka to turn his head and cough.
“I just thought we hung in there,” Rivers said. “We searched for combinations. We went completely unconventional. We went ultra-small. We put Danny at the four. His numbers won’t show it, but Danny Granger was huge for us. He kept guys from getting rebounds. I thought his length was a factor. Then obviously Jamal and (Collison) in that small lineup, that won the game for us. I’m not sure we ever used that lineup. But that group won the game for us tonight.”
That settles it then. Beers all around.