A playoff game should never be about the officiating. If it is, something is horribly wrong.
But in the aftermath of the Clippers’ 105-104 Game 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, that was the only subject worthy of discussion.
Did the referees blow one, and possibly two, calls at the end of the game that essentially took the game away from the Clippers? They had a reasonable argument to believe so.
The Clippers were so close to winning the game, so close to coming home, to having a chance at a closeout game and advancing to the first Western Conference final in franchise history. But all of it evaporated.
“I don’t want to hear that they didn’t have the replay. That’s a bunch of crap.”
-- Clippers head coach Doc Rivers
Without a doubt, they hurt themselves, blowing a 101-88 lead with 4 minutes 13 seconds left. The Thunder went on a 17-3 run after that to win the game and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
But what about those calls? The first one had Clippers coach Doc Rivers fuming after the game, and for good reason.
With 11.3 seconds left and the Clippers protecting a two-point lead, OKC’s Reggie Jackson, defended by Matt Barnes, lost the ball out of bounds on a drive down the lane. But the officials, after watching several replays, awarded the ball to the Thunder.
A bad call. A decisive call.
In postgame comments that are sure to result in a league fine, Rivers told reporters, "That could be a series-defining call. And that’s not right."
As Rivers pointed out, with a 104-102 lead, had the Clippers been given the ball, the Thunder would have had to foul, and the Clippers would’ve had a chance to ice the victory.
"Let’s take away replay," an irate Rivers said. "Let’s take away the replay system. That’s our ball and we win the game.
That could be a series-defining call. And that’s not right.
-- Doc Rivers
"We made our own mistakes. We turned the ball over, we fouled, but at end of day we have replay system that you’re supposed to look at. I don’t want to hear that they didn’t have the replay. That’s a bunch of crap."
And just as the Clippers charged back from a 22-point deficit to win Game 4, the Thunders did the same to win Game 5.
Here are some other takeaways from the game:
— The officials made another critical call at the end when Chris Paul was whistled for a foul on Russell Westbrook from 3-point range with 6.4 seconds left. Westbrook made all three foul shots for a 105-104 lead.
Asked if he thought he fouled Westbrook, Paul said, "I didn’t feel like I did, but it doesn’t matter."
It’s a very tough blow, but we’re still alive
-- Clippers forward Matt Barnes
— The Clippers, especially Matt Barnes, did an exceptional job on Kevin Durant, who was 3-of-17 shooting before making two big baskets in the last 44 seconds. Durant scored 27 points but missed 16 of 22 shots in one of the worst shooting performances of his career.
— Jamal Crawford came up big in the second half after going just 1 of 7 in the first half. It was his 3-point basket that put the Clippers up by 13 in the fourth quarter. He finished with 19 points.
— Russell Westbrook can be unstoppable. With Durant struggling, he carried the Thunder offensively, even if his shot selection wasn’t always the best. Westbrook is at his best when he’s attacking the basket, and he proved it, scoring 38 points and going 14 of 16 from the free-throw line.
All is not lost. There’s still a Game 6 at Staples Center on Thursday night. But now the Clippers will have to return to Oklahoma City for a Game 7 if they want to advance. And they’ll have to recover from a devastating loss.
"It’s a very tough blow," Barnes said, "but we’re still alive."