NBA takeaways: Thunder push Clips to edge; refs push them over
FOX Sports' Sam Gardner breaks down Tuesday's NBA action
FOX Sports' Sam Gardner breaks down Tuesday's NBA action
By Sam Gardner
We officially have our first meaningful officiating controversy of the conference semifinals, and unfortunately for the Los Angeles Clippers, it reared its head during the most important stretch of the most important game of the season. Bitten by officials on more than one occasion in the final seconds of a loss that put them one game from elimination, the Clippers had every right to be angry at the way Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder ended, and one can hardly fault Doc Rivers for saying his team was "robbed" in the one-point loss. But at the same time, the guys with whistles can’t be blamed for the entirety of the Clippers’ 13-point collapse in the final 4:13 — bad calls or not — and LA knows that and will be eager to rectify things in Game 6 Thursday.
Elsewhere Tuesday night, the Indiana Pacers took the floor with a chance to close out their series with the Washington Wizards, but failed miserably at home (again), putting their viability as a true contender in the East in serious question. The Pacers have been doing this one-step-forward, two-steps-back dance for the whole postseason, and if they’re not careful, they could find themselves in a world of trouble come the weekend. Indiana can be good at times — great, even, in certain lights. But their inconsistency has been troubling, at best, and if there was ever a team that was primed to lose a series after leading 3-1, it would be them — a point hammered home in an embarrassing showing in Game 5.
Takeaway: You never want a playoff game to come down to officiating — especially not one as thrilling as the contest played between the Clippers and Thunder on Tuesday. But in the case of Game 5 between two of the most exciting teams left in the playoffs, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the referees helped not only to hand the Thunder a victory, but also to shift the tide in the entire series, as a result. Russell Westbrook should have never had an opportunity to knock down three free throws to win the game because the foul Chris Paul committed during Westbrook’s 3-point try with 6 seconds to play was not a foul. And truth be told, Westbrook should have never been able to take that shot in that situation to begin with, because the officials should have ruled that Reggie Jackson was the last to touch the ball before it went out on the previous play — a call that was somehow bungled even with the benefit of replay — and a fact not lost on Clippers coach Doc Rivers after the game, either:
Of course, the refs would have never even had the chance to mess that call up had they correctly whistled Westbrook’s obvious intentional foul on Paul seconds earlier before it elicited a steal. But if we know anything about basketball, it’s that sometimes things don’t go your way, and certainly OKC fans will be quick to point out other instances throughout the game where their own team, perhaps, was wronged. (I can already hear it now: “Well, Barnes fouled Jackson anyway!” — again, a fact acknowledged by Rivers in the video above.) So the Clippers, like it or not, find themselves with their backs to the wall heading into Game 6 on Thursday, and you’ve got to figure the collective basketball fandom is pulling for a Game 7, because this is a series that no one seems to want to end.
Star Review: Even if CP3 did get a fingernail on Westbrook on that final 3-point attempt — and I’ve yet to see a replay that shows me, convincingly, that he did — Westbrook didn’t deserve to get the benefit of the call if for no other reason than because he chose an awful time to take an even worse shot with the season on the line. (For the record, Westbrook threw up the shot with the Thunder down two, with more than six seconds to go in regulation, and with Paul guarding him.) In fact, for lengthy stretches of Tuesday night’s game (to say nothing of the series and season at large), the Thunder appeared to just stop running plays on offense, and when they did — allowing Westbrook to just sort of do as he pleased at the expense of OKC’s flow — they nearly tossed their NBA championship hopes out with their gameplan. It’s not that Westbrook is a guy who hasn’t earned the right to take the reins when the team needs it, and certainly his line (38 points on 11-of-23 shooting) was outstanding, overall. But sometimes, Russell Westbrook’s over-reliance on Russell Westbrook to shoulder the load can come at the team’s detriment. Sure, Kevin Durant struggled for most of the game Tuesday, and hit just three of his first 17 shots, but he also scored 10 points in the final four minutes of action, including two stupid-clutch 3s, and that is why it’s always better to keep feeding the MVP, rather than letting Westbrook play hero-ball around him. The problem with the Thunder always has been that Westbrook can tend to play with a chip on his shoulder and have an overinflated sense of his own positioning in the food chain, while Durant is too inclined to just let what happens happen, and until that situation is rectified, OKC will never reach its full potential, even if it gets away with it in this series.
Looking Ahead: Game 6 at Los Angeles, Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET.
What To Look For: As bad as Tuesday night’s ending was for the Clippers, it’s hardly the worst thing that’s happened to the team this postseason, so one has to figure that if any team is built to shake off a little bad news, it’s this one. LA got outstanding play on Tuesday from Blake Griffin (24 points, 17 rebounds), Paul (17 points, 14 assists), J.J. Redick (16 points, three 3s) and Jamal Crawford (19 points), who is seemingly the only player in the NBA who is more likely to make a jumper if you foul him while he shoots it. And you have to figure that same core will be hungrier than ever to redeem itself on Thursday. For the Thunder, it would be helpful if Durant would not wait until the waning moments to spring to life, and you’d like to see someone other than Westbrook or Durant step up and have a measurable impact on the game. But even if it ends up being KD and Russ vs. the Clippers, the fans at Staples Center should still be in for a treat.
Takeaway: There’s a strong case to be made that the Wizards, not the Pacers, should be the ones in command of this series, despite what the record says. And on Tuesday, Washington did everything it could to support the claim that it was the team most worthy of facing Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. After winning Game 1 on the road, relinquishing a fourth-quarter lead on the road in Game 2 and watching a 19-point second-half lead evaporate at home in Game 4, the Wizards once again imposed their will on the No. 1 seed Pacers in Game 5 — but this time there was no let-down down the stretch. Washington shot well from the field (50 percent), played effective defense (39 percent shooting for Indiana) and crushed the Pacers on the boards, pulling down nearly as many offensive rebounds (18) as Indiana had defensive rebounds (19) in the game — in the process setting an NBA record for rebound differential in a playoff game, with 62 boards to the Pacers’ 23. There wasn’t much input from the Wizards bench in the effort, as the Washington starters scored the team’s first 85 points of the night before Al Harrington’s free throw with 8:51 left and the game well in hand. But when your team is able to control the pace and cruise like Washington did on Tuesday, it’s kind of hard to come up with many things to gripe about.
Star Review:Marcin Gortat has already proved his worth on several occasions during the Wizards’ season and playoff run, and games like Tuesday’s are the reason he’s going to be a hot commodity — and become an even richer man — when he hits the free-agent market this summer. This is a guy who, just a few years ago, was little more than an underused fan favorite backing up Dwight Howard in Orlando, but at this point, there are probably plenty of GMs who would consider Gortat the better value at center of the two. After personal flops in Games 3 and 4, Gortat was as magnificent as he’s ever been in Game 5, scoring a career-high 31 points on 13-of-15 shooting, and pulling down 16 rebounds in the win. He was joined in his resurgence by John Wall, who had his best game of the series to date with 27 points on 11-of-20 shooting, paced by a dominant second half that saw him score 17 points on eight shots, including three 3-pointers. When Wall and Gortat are both playing that well, the Wizards will be tough to beat, regardless of what Paul George (15 points) and David West (17 points) are doing. Add in another bout of sudden-onset ineffectiveness from Roy Hibbert (four points, two rebounds in 25 minutes), and this series quickly becomes a mismatch in favor of the team that, somehow, is still playing from behind.
Looking Ahead: Game 6 at Washington, Thursday, 8 p.m. ET
What To Look For: If you’re going to be down 3-2 in a best-of-seven tilt, there’s probably not a more ideal situation to be in than the Wizards’, for many of the reasons detailed above. Washington has been the better team for large portions of the series, and the Pacers, dating back to the Atlanta debacle in Round 1, have proven themselves capable of a mind-numbing collapse at any moment. That doesn’t make the prospect of beating the East’s No. 1 seed three times in a row any easier — no matter how No. 1 seed-worthy they actually look — but if there is a recipe for such a rally, the Wizards seem to be following it. If nothing else, it has become clear that this Washington team will go as its point guard and center go. As long as Wall and Gortat are operating at full capacity, then Washington will have a chance, and if the Wiz can churn out two more games like Tuesday’s romp, they’ll coast into the conference finals. Is that optimistic thinking? Sure, but given Indiana’s stars’ recent knack for disappearing, we’ve at least reached a point where a Washington comeback can’t be ruled out. If you’re the Pacers, meanwhile, it’s as simple as having your two All-Stars play like it. Hibbert and George better schedule another fishing trip, stat, and show up for Game 6 or else this could get ugly — and if it does, one has to figure it’ll also cost coach Frank Vogel his job.