With just under two minutes left in Game 7, Stephen Curry split a pair of Clippers defenders following a high ball screen and looked like he had a red carpet to the rim.
The Warriors were primed to take a one-point lead at Staples Center in a back-and-forth game that brilliantly showcased what made both teams special. Curry was leading an outside assault for Golden State that saw the Warriors drain 14 threes. The Clippers were personifying "Lob City" in all of its glory, executing the type of above-the-rim attack no other team can comprehend. The series was going to be decided by who could make a play at the end.
It was a question answered emphatically by what might have seemed like the most unlikely candidate on the floor, even if he was the biggest and most athletic player on a court flushed with All-Star talent.
DeAndre Jordan caught Curry from behind and swatted the ball off the backboard. Los Angeles started on the fast break that ended with a Blake Griffin alley-oop dunk. On the next Clippers possession, Jordan grabbed an offensive rebound to give Los Angeles a second-chance opportunity and then slammed home Chris Paul's miss with a ferocious tip-dunk. It was a six-point swing at the game's most crucial juncture and it was all keyed by a player who once slipped to the second round in the 2008 draft.
The Clippers head into a Western Conference semifinals series with the Thunder Monday that may be the most exciting of an already wild 2014 playoffs. They're here in part because of a few huge performances by Jordan, who overpowered a thin Golden State frontline after injuries to Andrew Bogut and Jermaine O'Neal. The Clippers know what they're getting from the typically stellar Griffin and Paul in this series, but it's Jordan who represents the ultimate swing card against Oklahoma City.
Jordan has been labeled a "project" since the moment the Clippers selected him with the No. 35 pick. He was considered a top 10 player nationally coming out of high school, but his one year at Texas A&M was doomed after Billy Gillispie bolted to take the Kentucky job just as Jordan was ready to enter the program. Jordan's potential was obvious, but his uneven statistics didn't back up the eye test. Somehow, a player with a 7'6 wingspan and dunk contest athleticism couldn't even secure the guaranteed contract that comes with being a first-round pick.
What showed in Game 7 against the Warriors, where Jordan finished with 15 points, 18 rebounds, three blocks and didn't miss a shot the entire game, was the realization of six years of work. Jordan has always had the look of a starting center. He's arguably the most athletic big man to ever play the game, at least when raw running and jumping ability meets size.
It's taken over 400 games to get this far, but it's starting to look like Jordan is finally putting it all together. If he's fully arrived, the Clippers' championship dreams just became a whole lot more realistic.
Jordan's playoff breakout wasn't an accident or an occurrence strictly based on a good matchup. After a rough first half, he's been better and better as the season went on. That Jordan finished No. 3 in Defensive Player of the Year voting might seem head-scratching at first, but he really has become a terrific back-line defender in the second half of the season.
The Clippers brought in Doc Rivers in part to help make "Lob City" something more tangible. He's emphasized defense. Los Angeles finished the regular season No. 7 in points allowed per 100 possessions, and placed fifth in opponent's effective field goal percentage while forcing the seventh-highest turnover rate. That all starts with Jordan learning to handle his immense physical gifts and turning into a plus defender at the rim.
It's taken time, but it always does with big men. Things didn't look so good at the start of the season when the Clippers finished the first half nearly four points better defensively with Jordan off the floor, per NBA.com. Since the All-Star break, though, Jordan's improvement is backed up by the numbers. Los Angeles went from allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions with him to 105 without him. Jordan has contested more shots, and opponents' field goal percentage at the rim went down.
There's still the pesky free throw issue. Jordan going 9-of-17 from the line after the Warriors started playing hack-a-DAJ in Game 5 felt miraculous until you realized it was still only a 53 percent conversion rate. For a player who led the league in field goal percentage but was the NBA's second-worst free throw shooter, Jordan may never get comfortable at the line.
What's more important is everything else he brings to the Clippers when he's on the floor. Jordan should be licking his chops against Kendrick Perkins on the brink of the series vs. Oklahoma City. Perkins is a big body, but he simply can't keep up with a thoroughbred athlete like Jordan on either side of the floor. It's not about becoming a focal point offensively for Jordan as much as it is anchoring the back line of the Los Angeles defense and making the most of his touches offensively.
The Grizzlies were able to slow down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in part because they had two long-armed giants in the paint that deterred the Thunder's pair of superstars from getting to the rim. With Paul hobbled by a sore right hamstring, Jordan's last line of defense becomes even more important with Westbrook and Durant's kamikaze drives to the rim.
It's a task DeAndre Jordan was born to complete, but one he wasn't ready to accept as recently as four months ago. If Jordan is up to it, a field that seems wide open as the second round of the playoffs begins just added another very serious title contender.