By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES — A heat wave is cooking Southern California — 95 degrees out here in the land of palm trees. But inside the Staples Center tonight is where things could really boil over.
This Western Conference semifinal series has already seen earth-rattling events from natural wonders (Chris Paul knocking down eight 3s in Game 1; Russell Westbrook‘s Game 2 triple-double and Kevin Durant nearly matching it; Blake Griffin‘s various bloodied facial parts) and unnatural disasters (both teams blowing double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in successive games; Game 5’s controversial out-of-bounds call; Doc Rivers, a stabilizing rock and picture of calm during the Donald Sterling mess going volcanic after Game 5).
With nerves on edge and pressure dialed higher than the blazing L.A. sun, tonight’s Game 6 (10:30 ET, ESPN) could come down to which team keeps it cool through the inevitable ebbs and flows, no-calls, good calls and bad calls. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers finished the regular season first and second in technical fouls assessed, with Griffin (16) tied for first among all players and Durant (15) third.
“We have an emotional group of guys, I’ve known that since Day 1,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “You have to have a very even-keel approach to the game because it’s an emotional game, it’s a very competitive game, 10 of the greatest athletes competing against each other and you have to be able to remain calm in the moments. At times we struggle in that area, but for the most part we do a pretty good job of that.”
In the five games, 10 players — seven on the Thunder — have been hit with at least one technical foul. Paul and Westbrook are tied for most in the playoffs with three each. For the Clippers, Matt Barnes has two while the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams and Durant all also have two. Even Brooks has a T.
Rivers worried about his team’s penchant to fray when things start to slip away a bit or when calls don’t go their way. During the season he instituted the fourth-quarter rule: No technical fouls in the fourth quarter.
The bigger concern tonight is the first quarter and how the Clippers respond emotionally from their demoralizing Game 5 collapse that left Rivers hot — he was fined $25,000 Thursday for his post-game criticism of the officials — and Paul, who in the final 17 seconds committed two critical turnovers and the foul on Westbrook’s 3-point play, as demoralized as some longtime followers have ever seen the seven-time All-Star point guard.
“He’s normal, he’s normal,” Barnes said of Paul. “A lot comes with being great. You get a lot of blame when you lose and you get praise when you win, and unfortunately it went the other way this time. We let him know it was any one play. We win as a team, lose as a team. He took it hard, but I have no doubt he’ll be back to his self today.”
Rivers tried to tamp down the flames from the Game 5 collapse and controversial call on the team’s flight home from Oklahoma City. He approached the players, asked for the music to be turned off and card games halted so he could talk to them.
“It gave me butterflies almost,” Barnes said. “It’s just like this guy really has our back and he really believes like we believe. It was already stuff we were talking about, but he just came and reiterated it, and told us it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be easy, enjoy it and be ready to work in Game 6.”
The Thunder know the feeling. A controversial call didn’t nip them during their nine-minute meltdown in Game 4 that allowed the Clippers to overcome a 16-point deficit to win. Oklahoma City started Game 5 flat, falling behind 30-15 after sprinting to a 29-7 lead in Game 4.
It’s not a pattern the Clippers want to follow.
“I think we’re in a good mental place, I really do,” Clippers shooting guard Jamal Crawford said after the team’s Thursday morning shootaround. “Obviously that night, guys were really frustrated and really down. I think that’s a normal reaction; I think it’s good to be that way, to try to get it out and you move forward from there.”