Trailing by 35 points shortly before the half, LA Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson joked that the Clips were "right where we want to be" against the Washington Wizards.
Still, the Clippers could hardly believe what they had done when the buzzer sounded. Despite playing without the injured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, LA tied the second-largest NBA comeback in the play-by-play era (since 1996-97) and stunned the Wizards 116-115 on Tuesday at Capital One Arena.
The Clippers trailed 66-31 with 1 minute, 20 seconds left in the first half. Their 35-point comeback tied the Sacramento Kings' win over the Chicago Bulls in 2009, and it is second only to the Utah Jazz overcoming a 36-point deficit against the Denver Nuggets in 1996.
The Clippers, though, are starting to become accustomed to improbable comebacks. They are the first team in the past 25 seasons to have erased a deficit of 24 or more points and win three times in a season. And they've managed to do so all in the month of January, with comeback victories over the Nuggets, the Philadelphia 76ers and now the Wizards.
"Why do we keep doing that to ourselves?" Clippers guard Luke Kennard said after the win. "I don't know. I don't want to do it anymore, though.
"Man, that was crazy."
Down 66-36 at halftime, Clippers coach Ty Lue opened the third quarter with several of his starters on the bench. Lue didn't play starters Jackson, Nicolas Batum and Ivica Zubac in the second half, opting to go with guys such as Amir Coffey (29 points), Kennard (25 points) and Terance Mann (16 points).
The Clippers (24-25) kept telling themselves they could come back, having erased a 25-point deficit to beat the Nuggets 87-85 on Jan. 11 and a 24-point deficit to shock their old coach, Doc Rivers, and the Sixers in Philadelphia 102-101 on Friday.
Once they cut Tuesday's deficit down to 17 by the end of the third quarter, the Clippers began to really believe.
"It's crazy," said Lue, who was without his two stars, Leonard (right ACL rehab) and George (right elbow ligament tear), and starter Marcus Morris Sr. (personal reasons). "Because when I looked at the score [at one point] in the first half, I thought we were down 19. And I looked again, I said, 'We're down 29!' I said, 'Oh s---!' It happened so quick.
"We kept chipping away. I know when it was like 17 going into the fourth, and I think when we got to 10, I was like, OK, we got a real shot."
From the point when they were down 35, the Clippers used an improbable 72-39 run to get within 105-103 with 2:46 remaining. But then it appeared they ran out of gas.
Former Clipper and 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell delivered an impressive chase-down block on a Coffey fast-break layup, and Bradley Beal (23 points) hit a 3 on the other end. Washington would push the lead back up to eight with 36.8 seconds left.
The Wizards led by seven with under 20 seconds left, but Coffey drove in for a dunk. After Kyle Kuzma made one of two free throws, Kennard buried a 32-foot 3-pointer from near the logo with nine seconds left to cut the lead to 115-112.
Washington couldn't inbound the ball and had a costly 5-second violation. Kennard then hit a 27-foot 3 while being fouled by Beal with 1.9 seconds to go. The Clippers guard converted the four-point play to become the only player in the past 25 seasons with a game-winning four-point play in the final five seconds of a game, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information. It was the Clippers' first and only lead of the game.
Even 13-year veteran Batum had both of his hands on his head in disbelief on the sideline.
Wizards players appeared shocked.
Entering Tuesday, teams were 1-16,239 over the past 20 seasons when trailing by seven or more points with under 20 seconds remaining in regulation, according to ESPN Stats & Info research.
"I have no words," Beal said after the game. "Besides 'embarrassing.'"
"I was frustrated when I had to go back in," Beal added. "This should have been a game where the starters get their rest. Plain and simple."
Washington (23-25) lost for the fourth straight time, but this certainly was the hardest defeat of the season to swallow.
Kennard scored seven points in the last nine seconds, setting off a Clippers celebration that ended with Lue drenched in cold water in the visitors locker room.
"Probably the craziest game I've ever been a part of," Coffey said. "January been wild. You never know when the game is over. Play through the buzzer.
"Like tonight, anything can happen."