The NBA season is so long that some games are bound to be forgotten, leaving behind nothing but a box score and a blur.
Others, for reasons better or worse, lodge themselves into the memories of those who played them — a milestone during a marathon.
At the midway point of their regular season Sunday the Clippers produced a game that was both: Stagnant for the first three quarters but stirring in the fourth to produce one of the most stunning turnarounds in a season defined by them, overcoming an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Brooklyn 125-114 and send Crypto.com Arena into an eruption of noise.
Still trailing by 11 points with 5:33 remaining as Brooklyn’s offense constantly pushed back whenever the Clippers showed progress, the Clippers took a timeout and gathered their lineup of sixth-man candidate Norman Powell and four future Hall of Famers — James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Coming off a four-day break after their last game, coach Tyronn Lue said he was not going to pull the plug and insert his reserves.
“Got some stops,” Harden said. “And everything else is history.”
The Nets never scored again, their lead and victory unraveling against a 22-0 closing run by the Clippers. Leonard was responsible for 14 of those points, including a 10-foot jumper with 2:50 to play for their first lead, and three-pointers with 1:04 and 29.9 seconds left for the final daggers.
“Slow start,” George said, “but then get red hot at the end. That was a different game.”
Leonard, George and Harden combined to make six of their 22 shots in the first half, their team buoyed by the energy of typically complementary players such as Westbrook and Terance Mann. George missed his first seven shots, Leonard his first five, and the Clippers were outscored by 17 in Harden’s 17 first-half minutes.
After halftime, that trio shot a combined 11 of 21. Harden scored a team-high 24 points, with 10 assists and five rebounds. Leonard scored 21, George had 12 and Westbrook 23 to go with nine rebounds and six assists.
Just as the story of their season must include the starting lineup change that took effect Nov. 17 on the same night Harden’s game-winner ended a six-game losing streak; the nadir of Nov. 27, when a Denver team missing numerous stars torched the Clippers behind former Clipper castoffs Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan; the George game-winner against Golden State that began a nine-game winning streak; the wins against Utah, New Orleans and Denver that each ended years-long losing streaks in the series; so, too, must a chapter be eventually devoted to Sunday’s matinee, when the Clippers pulled off an unlikely comeback using an unlikely weapon to improve to 27-14 overall and 24-7 in their last 31 games.
That Westbrook-George-Harden-Leonard-Powell lineup had played only 12 minutes before Sunday, and had outscored opponents by just one point , as Lue studiously avoided playing smaller lineups that have long had issues rebounding. The Hall of Fame quartet was even less reliable over their 118-minute sample size together, outscored by 40 points.
Yet beginning halfway into the fourth quarter and continuing for the next game-changing six minutes, that pairing scored 20 unanswered points.
“It’s always going to feel good,” George said. “It’s fun being out there with those guys. All Hall of Famers and I get to play with them.”
It was the exclamation point on a fourth quarter in which the Clippers outscored Brooklyn 41-15.
“Earlier in the game, they were coming at us,” Westbrook said. “And then the fourth quarter, I thought we were the aggressors. Did a great job of being aggressive offensively and defensively. Attacking using our size, getting to the paint, making the right reads. And, as you seen, it changed the whole momentum of the game.”
With long-armed wings and a defense that switches at one of the league’s highest rates, the Nets induced the Clippers into their season-low shooting percentage in November and again gummed up their offense for three quarters.
“To put 125 [points] on the board with a slow start, this team has endless possibilities of what it can do,” George said.
Yet it was the defense that seemingly put a win out of reach. The Clippers had allowed opponents only 32 attempted three-pointers per game this month, their fewest by month this season. But that was with starting center Ivica Zubac, a premier rim protector, as their anchor.
With Zubac missing his third game of a monthlong absence with a calf injury, the Clippers’ defensive rotations were a step slow — “maybe two steps,” Lue said. Brooklyn led 16-0 less than five minutes into the first quarter. Then, after the Clippers forged an 18-all tie within three minutes kicked off by two vital corner threes from Mann, Brooklyn once again ran away, their lead back to 16 before halftime. The Nets had taken 33 threes, and made 14, by the third quarter’s end to hold a 15-point lead entering the final quarter, and scored whenever the Clippers seemed to pull within reach.
Westbrook’s finger-roll layup to pull the Clippers to within 80-71 in the third quarter was barely out of the net before Spencer Dinwiddie immediately passed the ball upcourt for a layup by Cam Johnson.
In the fourth quarter, when Westbrook’s open-court dunk with seven minutes remaining and center Daniel Theis’ dunk on the very next possession brought the Clippers to within seven points, Brooklyn answered with baskets each time.
In hindsight, it was Brooklyn’s last stand. And the start of the Clippers’ own.
“When we’re engaged and doing the things necessary to guard and get stops consecutively,” Harden said, “we’re extremely — like, an unbeatable team.”