COLLISON’S ‘SACRIFICE’ PAYS OFF FOR CLIPPERS IN GAME 4

LOS ANGELES – Darren Collison may have thought about how he could save Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals back in July.

The Clippers’ reserve guard, who scored 18 points off the bench including a dozen in the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon’s dramatic 101-99 comeback victory, texted Blake Griffin last summer when Collison was a free agent.

He said he wanted to be a Clipper at all cost, even if that meant making sacrifices financially as well as on the court.

“I thought this team had a good shot of competing for a championship,” Collison said in his first trip to postseason dais as a member of the Clippers. “I [wanted] to put myself in that position. It’s hard sacrificing, but I made the sacrifice. I’m here, and I’m happy I made the right decision.”

The Clippers are likely happier.

Collison, who had arguably his best all-around regular season in the fifth year of his career, played multiple roles including starting at point guard and shooting guard. On Sunday, on the heels of a game a scoreless outing in Game 3, Collison electrified a Clippers’ rally.

He scored eight of the final 14 points of the game for the Clippers, including leaking out after a steal by Jamal Crawford to throw down a dunk ahead of the pack and getting back-to-back layups in the last minute to put the Clippers up 101-97.

Collison was 5-for-7 shooting in the second half and finished the game with a career postseason-high seven rebounds. And while he was effectively the offensive star down the stretch, his defense aided the Clippers’ cause as well.

In a lineup that featured Collison and Chris Paul in the backcourt, a pairing the Clippers used to win six of eight games in the regular season, Collison was able to pressure Thunder point guard and former collegiate teammate Russell Westbrook. That freed Paul to guard Kevin Durant and let the rest of the Clippers help trap the league’s MVP at opportune times. 

“Out thought was to get up in the pressure [defensively], see how many seconds they can use before they get in their set,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “That allowed us to trap. Then there’s not enough time to swing the ball.”

The strategy worked, and it gave the Clippers an opportunity to run for really the first time in the series. They converted 21 fast-break points, including six by Collison, who along with Jamal Crawford turned the game around, in the fourth quarter.

“Game ball goes to Darren Collison,” Paul said after expanding on his relationship with Collison whom he played with in 2010 while Collison was a rookie in New Orleans.

Paul talked about Collison’s heart, something Matt Barnes also mentioned. 

“He plays with all heart. He plays as hard as he possibly can,” Barnes said. “He’s very aggressive.”

The aggressiveness was reminiscent of Collison’s wondrous stretch in March when the Clippers went 12-1 in games he appeared in and he averaged 15.5 points and 4.2 assists. But that was in the middle of a push for the Playoffs, not in the midst of possibly being slammed into a 3-1 hole in the second round.

Pressure, though, is something Collison relishes almost as much as winning. He canned four free throws in the fourth quarter, the first, on both trips to the line, wobbling on the rim before falling home. And when he had a chance to pull up and shoot from the perimeter Collison recognized he needed to get to the basket.

The chance to thrive in moments like Sunday is precisely why Collison texted Griffin almost 10 months ago.

“I just felt like being in a winning situation [would] elevate my game on so many different levels,” Collison said. “It’s paid dividends all season long.”

No more so, perhaps, when he helped send the Clippers back to Oklahoma City with the series tied at two games apiece.