Clippers pull off biggest comeback in team history in stunner over Wizards

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Los Angeles Clippers guard Luke Kennard (5) celebrates after hitting the game tying shot.
Clippers guard Luke Kennard (5) celebrates after hitting the game-tying shot in the closing seconds of a 116-115 win over the Washington Wizards. Kennard was fouled on the three-pointer and made a subsequent free throw to win the game. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

History began Tuesday with a lie.

Trailing by 30 points, the Clippers’ largest deficit at halftime in 137 games, point guard Reggie Jackson stalked the visiting locker room inside Capital One Arena repeating a confidence that was in no way supported by a first half in which they had fallen behind by as many as 35.

“We’re right,” Jackson said, “where we want to be.”

In any other NBA locker room, Jackson’s keep-the-faith tone that stretched believability would have been laughed off. But only the Clippers could have found a shred of truth within it. Only 14 days earlier, a roster without either of their injured All-Stars, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, had authored a 25-point comeback. And just four days earlier, they had overcome a 24-point hole to stun Philadelphia.

“It’s a crazy statement, but, you know, he believed it,” forward Amir Coffey said. “We all did.”

They no longer had to believe when a last-gasp Washington pass slipped off of Montrezl Harrell’s fingers with one second to play, and Coffey grabbed the ensuing inbounds and cradled the ball like a running back as the buzzer sounded.

A 35-point comeback, the largest in franchise history and tied for the league’s second-largest since 1996, when the NBA began keeping play-by-play data, was suddenly indisputable fact, registering in the 116-115 on the scoreboard and the raucous celebration that overtook the court.

Starter Nicolas Batum, who did not play in the second half because of a back spasm, removing one of the team’s most versatile defenders, cradled his head with his hands in disbelief. Jackson leaped into coach Tyronn Lue, tweaking the coach’s own back in a moment he barely felt because of adrenaline as he charged off the court, slapping hands with fans and team security guards. His furrowed eyebrows betrayed the emotion of a coach who knows, somehow, that his team is most comfortable only once it has contorted itself in the tightest knots.

They are the only team in the last 25 seasons with three comebacks of at least 24 points in a single season. And they did it in two weeks.

With the Clippers trailing by six points with 11 seconds to play, Luke Kennard made a 35-foot three-pointer, then Washington inexplicably turned the ball over on a five-second inbounds violation. Their next mistake was even more stunning — failing to foul Clippers reserve Justise Winslow, a 52% free-throw shooter, when he caught the ball on the ensuing possession. He had enough time to flip the ball to Kennard, who sank a three-pointer that ripped through the net as he was fouled. He made the go-ahead free-throw with 1.9 seconds left.

The Clippers led for all of 1.9 seconds. The last 1.9 seconds.

“We stopped playing,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said.

Coffey, whose 29 points are a career high, called it “probably the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of.”

Kennard rubbed his eyes sitting down for an interview.

“Why do we keep doing that to ourselves? I don’t know,” said Kennard, who busted out of a slump since returning from the NBA’s health and safety protocols by scoring 25 points, with eight rebounds and six assists. “I don’t want to do it anymore, though. Man, that was crazy.”

Clippers coaches walking back to their locker room after the win howled as they recalled the Wizards’ five-second violation. Players dumped cold water on Lue in the locker room. He coached the only three-games-to-one comeback in NBA Finals history with Cleveland. He watched from afar when the Clippers authored the largest playoff rally ever, 31 points, in 2019. He was their coach when the Clippers overcame a 24-point deficit to secure their first conference final berth in June.

“This ranks up there,” he said.

One Clippers executive yelled to coaches afterward that Washington’s expected winning percentage was 100%. It was never quite that absolute — reaching as high 99.7%, according to ESPN calculations — but it might as well have been. In NBA history, teams trailing by seven or more points with less than 20 seconds remaining in regulation were 1-16,239, according to ESPN research.

Now they are 2-16,240.

Amid a disjointed season without their stars and lineups jumbled because of COVID-19, the Clippers (24-25) have struggled to find consistency, but as early as December, Jackson had pinpointed the team’s resiliency as the one thing he could depend on from game to game.

“I’m never gonna give up,” Lue said. “You always try to fight and keep pushing through, and I want to instill that in these guys and a lot of these guys have that.”

Everyone recalled different moments when they believed Jackson’s halftime confidence had become true. Kennard believed when the 30-point deficit was 22 just four minutes into the second half, Lue when the hole reached single digits with nine minutes to play.

"I knew we was going to win this game the whole time," guard Jay Scrubb said. "Was just a matter of when they would let us back in."

Lue removed Batum at halftime as a precaution, benched two ineffective starters in Jackson and center Ivica Zubac and pinned his hopes on just eight players after halftime, an energetic group of mostly reserves who pressured the Wizards nearly full court and held Washington 49 points in the second half while shooting 52%, and making nine three-pointers, themselves, in the last half.

Isaiah Hartenstein and Terance Mann scored 16 points, Scrubb — who rejoined the team from the G League only two days earlier — scored eight and Justise Winslow had four to spark the comeback Coffey called “brick by brick.”

Jackson and Zubac led a bench that bounced on the sideline in the final minutes as the Wizards (23-25) repelled one last push after another — until they broke in the final seconds.

It is no lie, no exaggeration, to say that this was a night unlike any other in the franchise’s five-decade history.

“January’s been wild,” Coffey said. “You never know when the game is over. Play through the buzzer. Like tonight, anything can happen.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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