LOS ANGELES (AP) — When the Oklahoma City Thunder were down by 16 points and struggling to make any shot early in Game 6, they looked all but ready to fold up and head home for a series-deciding finale.
Instead, Kevin Durant shouldered the Thunder and carried them into the fourth quarter, where they demonstrated the poise of a championship contender.
Durant had 39 points and 16 rebounds, and Oklahoma City advanced to the Western Conference finals with a 104-98 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 on Thursday night.
Russell Westbrook overcame a slow start to finish with 19 points and 12 assists as the Thunder reached the conference finals for the third time in four years, closing out Los Angeles with two straight wins.
Two days after the Thunder erased a late 13-point deficit to win Game 5, the Thunder rallied from that early deficit and maintained their lead throughout the fourth quarter, shaking off any memories of their Game 4 collapse on the same Staples Center court.
“Experience has helped us out a lot, just being with each other for so long,” Durant said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We definitely can get better. This is definitely a series that pushed us to the brink. We were in a tough spot. We stayed together and persevered.”
The league MVP hit five 3-pointers and Reggie Jackson added 14 points for Oklahoma City, which will face the Spurs in a rematch of the West’s last two champions. The series begins Monday night in San Antonio.
Chris Paul had 25 points and 11 assists, and Blake Griffin had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists before fouling out as the Clippers’ exhausting postseason ended in disappointment.
Perhaps the cumulative pressure of two playoff series amid the distractions of owner Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban finally cost the two-time Pacific Division champion Clippers, who couldn’t keep up late.
Or perhaps Durant is just that good.
“We did a great job of sticking together,” Westbrook said. “Kevin did a great job of setting his guys up, getting the ball in spots that were effective.”
J.J. Redick scored 16 points for the Clippers, who followed their epic collapse in Game 5 with a disappointing second half at home. Despite a raucous home crowd, Los Angeles won’t make its first trip to the conference finals after the best regular season in franchise history.
“Oklahoma City absolutely deserves it,” said Paul, whose final-minute mistakes hurt the Clippers dearly in Game 5. “We have a really good team, a great team. It’s crazy. You play all season long, and the last few games, we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it’s crazy that it’s over.”
The Clippers led for almost every minute of the first three quarters, but Durant kept the Thunder close and eventually ignited a 30-10 run stretching across the final two quarters. Westbrook, who didn’t have a field goal until late in the third quarter, contributed 10 points in the fourth as the Thunder comfortably maintained their lead.
The fans’ frustration boiled over after an offensive foul call against Griffin with 3:11 to play. During the ensuing timeout, fans threw at least two drinks at referee Ed Malloy, causing a slight delay while the floor was cleaned.
Griffin fouled out with 2:27 left, but the Clippers got within four points in the final minute before Westbrook and Durant hit free throws to close it out.
The loss ended a tumultuous postseason for the Clippers, who managed to win a seven-game series with Golden State in the first round even while Sterling was banned from the NBA for life for racist comments exposed during that series.
“We’ve gone through a lot of stuff over the last three or four weeks,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t think that was why we didn’t win. I don’t think we should use that as an excuse. We’re a team in process. I believe we were good enough to win it this year. Oklahoma City told us we were not.”
Oklahoma City smoothly secured its spot in the conference finals after these teams traded spectacular collapses in the last two games.
The Thunder blew a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 4 at Staples Center, but the Clippers responded by blowing a 13-point lead in the final four minutes in Oklahoma City.
The Clippers showed little carry-over from their collapse early in Game 6, while the Thunder appeared a step slow and disorganized, falling behind by 16 points in the first half. Durant and Westbrook combined to miss their first nine shots, but Durant quickly got going.
NOTES: Serge Ibaka scored six points before going to the locker room in the third quarter with an injured left calf. … The NBA fined Rivers $25,000 on Thursday for his criticism of the officiating in Game 5. “I thought it was deserved,” Rivers said. … Matt Damon, Rihanna, Tony Romo, Oscar De La Hoya, UFC President Dana White, former Clippers guard Eric Gordon and Masters champion Bubba Watson attended the game. Jack Nicholson watched from a seat near the Clippers’ bench. The archetypal Lakers fan also has occasionally attended Clippers games over the years.