By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — Game 5 will be remembered for the call, the officials’ curious explanation following the replay review and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers‘ scorching rant of the entire surreal sequence. It will all be replayed and dissected on a continuous loop.
For Chris Paul, the call that didn’t go the Clippers’ way with 11.3 seconds left to another unfathomable finish in this heart-stopping Western Conference semifinal series, isn’t what will eat at him for hours on end; isn’t what left him in a near-catatonic state in the postgame interview room.
Despite early foul trouble in a game in which the whistles blew early and often, Paul engineered a spectacular game for 47 minutes before he so unexpectedly came unglued in the final 49 seconds. Two turnovers, about what he’s averaged in each game in these playoffs, and inexplicably making contact with Russell Westbrook‘s shooting arm from behind the arc with 6.4 seconds left played a leading role in the Clippers’ collapse, a seven-point lead, and a series lead, dashed in 49.2 seconds.
Forty-nine seconds for a chance to close this out at home Thursday night. Forty-nine seconds for Paul, the nine-year pro and seven-time All-Star, to creep ever closer to his first conference final, and the first, too, for this long-beleaguered, but now proudly resilient franchise of which CP3 has willingly become the undeniable face.
“Toughest thing I’ve been through basketball-wise,” Paul said softly, his body slouched, motionless, his eyes unblinking. “Everything that happened during the end, a turnover with 17 seconds left, assuming that they would foul — dumbest play probably that I’ve ever made. And then hitting Russell’s hand and calling a foul on a 3. Just bad basketball.”
With 4:13 to go, the Clippers could feel the momentum surging in their favor. Jamal Crawford splashed a 3 and the lead they held practically throughout swelled to 101-88 as the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd groaned. League MVP Kevin Durant was having a miserable night, his worst postseason shooting performance of his career, 3-for-17, and he hadn’t even taken a shot in the fourth quarter.
Not until he popped a 3 with 3:23 to go: 101-93.
Paul would miss a couple of jumpers, and Crawford badly missed a 3. Reggie Jackson‘s layup made it 101-97 with 1:25 to go, but Paul calmly tip-toed into shooting position and drained a 17-footer with 68 seconds left: 104-97.
Durant hit another high-arching 3 with 43 seconds left to make it a four-point game. Crawford missed a scoop at the rim and Westbrook hustled the rebound out to Durant, who raced to the rim and scored with 17.8 seconds left: 104-102.
Still, the Clippers were in control, the shot clock turned off.
Then all hell broke loose.
Paul took the inbounds pass after the Durant bucket up the right sideline. Westbrook pressured him. Paul later said he expected Westbrook to foul him. Instead the Thunder point guard swiped the ball away with a quick jab and it bounced out to Jackson near midcourt. Jackson bolted into the lane, made contact with Matt Barnes and he and the ball went flying out of bounds under the basket. No foul was called. Referee Tony Brothers, positioned on the baseline, signaled Thunder ball.
As all close out-of-bounds plays do, this one went to video replay. Rivers, certain the call would be overturned, picked up his whiteboard to draw up a play. The refs watched the video screen, huddled, conferred and, finally, a verdict: Call stands, Thunder ball.
The Clippers went ballistic.
“I was shocked,” Paul said.
“It was our ball; everybody knows it was our ball,” Rivers, red-faced and hot during his postgame interview, said. “I think the bottom line is they thought it was a foul and they made up for it. In my opinion, let’s take replay away. Let’s take away the replay system because that’s our ball.”
It was the Thunder’s ball. Paul said Brothers told him the replay the referees observed showed it off the Clippers. Later in a statement issued by Brothers, the crew chief, he said the officials viewed two camera angles and neither was convincing enough to reverse the call in the Clippers’ favor: “From those two replays, it was inconclusive as to who the ball went out of bounds off of. When it’s inconclusive, we have to go with the call that was on the floor.”
Said Rivers: “We made our own mistakes, we turned the ball over, we fouled the 3-point shot, we did a lot of stuff to lose the game ourselves. But at the end of the day we have a replay system that you’re supposed to look at, and I don’t want to hear that they didn’t have that replay. That’s a bunch of crap.”
The Thunder were awarded the ball under their basket. Westbrook dribbled out top, sized up Paul and launched himself vertically, releasing a 3-point shot for the lead. Paul appeared to knock Westbrook’s arm and the trajectory of his shot suggested the same. The whistle blew. Foul. Three free throws.
“I didn’t feel like I did [foul], but it doesn’t matter,” Paul said.
With 6.4 seconds showing on the clock, Westbrook, dynamite throughout the game with 38 points and six assists, and the only reason OKC had a chance at all, made all three free throws to put OKC ahead 105-104.
After a timeout to move the ball into the frontcourt, Barnes inbounded to Paul, guarded by Thabo Sefolosha. A screen set Paul free around the right side as he darted toward the lane with designs of feeding a rolling Blake Griffin. But the Thunder’s Jackson dropped off Crawford, got a hand close enough to the ball to avoid a foul while disrupting Paul’s dribble. Paul lost it in the lane and time expired.
Stunned and angry, the Clippers were beside themselves as the buzzer punctuated the finality of an incredible Game 5 that moved the Thunder win from a third West finals appearances in four seasons.
“We lost and it’s on me,” Paul said. “We had a chance to win and the last play, we didn’t get a shot off and that’s just dumb. I’m supposed to be the leader of the team.
“It’s just bad, real bad.”
Just as the Thunder believed they had Game 4 won before blowing a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Clippers, who led 30-15 early, had this one stuffed in their back pocket. They were the better team for 47 minutes.
“They’re supposed to win that game,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. “Up 13 with four minutes to go, they’re supposed to win that game.”
And that’s all Paul will think about as he searches for a way to pull himself from Tuesday night’s wreckage.
“I don’t know, you just do,” Paul said of forgetting Game 5. “It’s real bad. Get ready for Game 6.”