The ball bounced around the rim, and the pivotal fifth game of a thrilling first-round series teetered along with it.
DeAndre Jordan leaped up and tapped it in — an instant too early.
The San Antonio Spurs got the biggest bounce in a game full of them, and the champs landed on the brink of the second round.
Tim Duncan scored 21 points before Jordan was called for basket interference with 4.3 seconds left, and the Spurs hung on for a 111-107 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 5 on Tuesday night, taking a 3-2 series lead.
San Antonio earned the chance to close it out at home on Thursday night, but only after its lead dwindled to 108-107 in the frantic final minute at Staples Center.
Blake Griffin launched a leaping leaner off an inbounds play with 6.9 seconds left, but it rattled around the basket. Jordan, who had 21 points and 14 rebounds, grazed the ball while it appeared to be inside the cylinder.
"It was a dumb play," said Jordan, who sat at his locker long after the game ended. "I hit the ball. We did a good job fighting to put us in a situation to go up one. You can’t blame anybody on that but me. I tipped the ball."
The officials decisively waved off the basket while Jordan waved his hands pleadingly, but the Clippers still hoped for a reversal on video review. The good news went to the Spurs, who have thrived in this series with slim margins of success — none smaller than this.
"That was the play of the game," said Manu Ginobili, who scored 14 points off the bench. "That’s why I say we got lucky. The ball was going in, and he happened to touch it. That would have put us down one. Instead, it was a completely different ballgame. We got a little lucky on the play."
When the interference call was upheld, the Spurs’ bench cheered while the Clippers’ fans greeted it with resigned acceptance. The Spurs hit three late free throws to pad the final score.
"I thought it was the right call," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I couldn’t tell, you know, and I couldn’t see it. … I hope to God it was the right call."
Duncan capped a vintage performance with a key block on Griffin in the final minute, while Kawhi Leonard scored 18 points for the five-time NBA champion Spurs, who won their second straight game in Los Angeles. The champs took a seven-point lead in the fourth and hung on after the Clippers cut it to one on Matt Barnes’ free throws with 30.8 seconds left.
"It was anybody’s game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It’s just two really competitive groups. A missed shot here, a missed shot there, really."
Griffin had 30 points and 14 rebounds, but missed two free throws with 39 seconds to play. Los Angeles missed 16 free throws overall and went 1 for 14 on 3-pointers while getting pushed to the brink.
"It’s tough, but the series isn’t over," Griffin said. "We can’t think like that."
This otherwise entertaining series grinded to a crawl in a lengthy third quarter featuring 35 combined free throws, but it picked up again in a tense fourth. The Spurs intentionally fouled Jordan eight times in the middle quarters, resuming their hack-happy assault on the Clippers’ poor-shooting center in the middle quarters.
San Antonio made a decisive 10-4 surge in the final minutes aided by a technical foul on Chris Paul, who had 19 points and 10 assists.
"It’s tough, but we can’t get it back," Paul said. "We’ve got to go to San Antonio and play with a sense of urgency."
Rivers hoped his team would respond better to its second victory than its first in a series filled with serious momentum shifts. Los Angeles won the opener comfortably, but then lost two straight in an overtime thriller and a blowout.
Los Angeles followed with a gritty Game 4 in San Antonio, evening the series that was widely expected to be the best in the NBA’s opening playoff round.
The series’ fever pitch extended right into Game 5 in front of a success-hungry crowd waving red towels.
San Antonio kept it close in the first half with superior bench play: Along with Ginobili, Patty Mills added 13 and Boris Diaw had 10 off the bench, including a remarkable fling at the basket to beat the shot clock with 2:52 to play.
The Spurs intentionally fouled Jordan three times late in the first half, resuming the divisive strategy that even Popovich claims he uses reluctantly. Jordan, a dismal free-throw shooter, missed four of six before Rivers pulled him out. San Antonio committed five more intentional fouls against Jordan in the third quarter before Rivers pulled him again. He finished 7 for 16 at the line.
Spurs: San Antonio has won 11 of its 14 best-of-seven series when tied 2-2. … The Spurs’ bench outscored the Clippers’ reserves 48-17.
Clippers: Rivers barely dipped into his bench, using only three reserves. Spencer Hawes and Hedo Turkoglu never got into the game. … J.J. Redick fouled out with 13 points.