With 3:39 left in the second quarter, the Thunder led the Clippers 51-36, turning in what appeared to be a dominant first 24 minutes. But Oklahoma City lapsed, and the Clippers trimmed the Thunder’s lead to 59-54 at half.
With 2:58 left in the third quarter, the Thunder led the Clippers 81-64, taking the late second quarter push and responding with a haymaker of their own, increasing to their biggest lead of the game. But the Thunder slipped again, and the Clippers closed the gap to 85-73 heading to the fourth.
With 7:07 left in the fourth quarter, the Thunder led the Clippers 94-79, once again assuming full control in a must-win game. Good offense, great defense and terrific energy had the Thunder close to putting things on cruise control. But a 14-0 run from the Clippers in three minutes tightened things to 94-93 with 4:24 left.
Game, terrifyingly on.
Everyone knew the importance of this game coming in, and it was apparent the Thunder were privy to that information with the way they played. The energy and intensity, particularly on the defensive end, was at maybe their highest levels of the season. Despite Kevin Durant uncharacteristically struggling with his shot, the Thunder were maintaining a double-digit lead for two reasons: 1) the defense was that damn good and 2) Russell Westbrook.
And when the Clippers closed things down to a one-point game with four minutes left, who was it that got things settled for OKC? Westbrook, who splashed an 18-foot jumper. Darren Collison made two free throws and again, Westbrook responded by getting to the free throw line, splitting a pair. Blake Griffin missed two at the line and Westbrook shot a 25-foot 3-point about 20 feet, which set up the games biggest sequence. Chris Paul was heading to the rim to tie the game at 97-97, but Serge Ibaka rotated perfectly over, altering his shot badly. With two minutes left and badly needing a bucket, the Thunder went to Durant who took a difficult shot over the outstretched hand of DeAndre Jordan. Just long, but guess who — Russell Westbrook. With one hand and a roar, the Thunder’s point guard stuffed back the miss to put OKC back up four.
The Clippers weren’t done, though. Chris Paul hit a jumper, to which Durant, who was just 7-25 from the field and 0-6 from 3, mind you, hit a wild step-back 3 with 1:31 left and the shot clock running down. Collison responded with a 3 of his own, which only meant the Thunder were going to need another winning play from someone. Durant got to the free throw line to take it back to a four-point game and Paul split two free throws. Timeout, deep breath. The Thunder ran a gorgeously designed fake pick-and-roll set that produced a good look for Ibaka from 14 feet with 16 seconds left, but it rimmed out. Guess who — Russell Westbrook. In he came flying in like a bat out of hell high on Red Bull and cocaine to pull in what proved to be a game-sealing offensive rebound.
To recap all that: Russell Westbrook basically won this game for the Thunder. It started from the beginning where he had 14 on 7-8 shooting in the first quarter, and it carried over to his 30-point, 11-rebound, six-assist performance that included a huge pull-up jumper to stop a Clipper run, a crazy putback dunk, and another insane offensive rebound. The Thunder were somehow able to win on the second night of a back-to-back, on the road against the West’s third-best team, despite Durant having his worst shooting game of the season (8-26, 1-7 from 3). How? I mean, how?
Westbrook and some hellacious defense, that’s how.
First, Westbrook: He has his flaws, and we all still see them on a nightly basis. In this game alone where he went for 30-11-6, he took some bad shots and made a few poor choices. But what you saw is why he’s so damn valuable. Those two rebounds he hauled in, he’s the only point guard in the world that pulls them off. His competitive spirit, his never-say-die attitude, his willingness to compete until the end of every play, especially in critical moments, is what separates him. It’s what allows me to entirely overlook and often dismiss those flaws he has.
Second, the defense: It’s what we know the Thunder are capable of any given night, and what I think we can expect to see consistently in the postseason. It’s almost as if they’ve been saving these performances for just the right times or something. The way they played against the Spurs and now the Clippers just had a different look about them. When the Thunder have been challenged and pushed, they’ve responded.
This was the biggest game of the regular season and the Thunder had to survive Kevin Durant’s worst shooting night of the season. This all but gives them the coveted No. 2 seed, and means the next week should be far easier and less stressful than it could’ve been. Their magic number for the two-seed is now two, meaning any combination of either two wins, two Clippers losses or a win and a Clippers loss get it done. The way the Thunder responded not just tonight, but last night in Sacramento are encouraging signs of what this team can do when they need to.
- This was the first time for the starting five to be together since Feb. 20. Only the second time since Dec. 25.
- And interestingly, Brooks went to his starting five to close out the game, which is something we saw rarely in the first few months when they were healthy. Brooks tried a brief spell of smallball with Durant on Griffin and Ibaka on Jordan, but that was in the midst of that fourth quarter Clipper run, so Brooks made a good choice to go back to big.
- One question that got answered: Brooks isn’t going to use Caron Butler carte blanche in his closing lineup. Butler was on the floor and it was obvious he didn’t have much use with the present matchups and that Thabo’s disruptive defense could be helpful. Brooks brought Sefolosha back on, and the Thunder’s defense immediately improved. It’s like having that Thabo Sefolosha guy back helps or something.
- Doc Rivers pulled a slick move on Scott Brooks to spark that late third quarter run. Brooks stuck with his typical rotation, sitting down Westbrook and Ibaka, but Rivers left his starters on the floor a bit longer to go against the Thunder’s second unit. Durant was still on the floor for OKC, but the Clippers clearly had a superior lineup out there.
- One play that can’t be overlooked: Reggie Jackson’s 3 to end the third quarter. Big, big time shot to slow things down and give OKC not only a 12-point lead heading to the fourth, but a little momentum back.
- Durant almost broke his most impressive streak of going now 102 straight games having more points than shot attempts. It was 27-26 tonight. Let’s not cut it that close again.
- It seems as if Westbrook’s minute restriction is basically gone. He has been checking out around the six-minute mark of the first quarter, but played almost the entire opening period tonight. He still played under 34 minutes, but he subbed in at his usual mark of about eight minutes in the fourth.
- Steven Adams could be the X-factor in a series with the Clippers. His physicality and ability to match Griffin and Jordan in size, power and streak is something that could make a difference. His second quarter was tremendous with offensive rebounds, pick-and-roll defense, catching and finish and blocks. With him in that bench role, the aggression is back.
- Westbrook started the game shooting 7-8 in the first quarter. He finished 12-24. Why can’t he ever maintain a hot shooting night? Seems like every time he gets off to a great start, he always regresses to the mean in game. Oh, I know why. Because when he starts hot, he totally knows it and feels like he’s got a license to chuck bad shots.
- Durant couldn’t find the outside touch all night, but the two long jumpers he hit in the second half, both were difficult and at the end of the shot clock. I think he’s at his best sometimes in those spots, especially when he’s off. He doesn’t have a chance to think. He just has to fire on instinct. And his instinct is good.
- Why do announcers and others continue to act dumbfounded about why opposing players “go after” Blake Griffin? There’s a common denominator here that so many seem to ignore.
- KD used that weird hard dribble jump stop jumper move again tonight. Obviously something he’s been working at.
- Perk isn’t a good fit playing the Clippers, but he was actually fairly decent. The Clipper run in the second quarter had a lot to do with him as they exposed his flat-footedness in the high pick-and-roll, lobbing to Jordan, but overall, he was solid. He hit all three of his shots and had four rebounds in 22 minutes. Late in the fourth he did a really nice job of rotating over to shut down a CP3 drive too. Not bad. Still, I’d play him less against the Clippers.
- Durant falls for pump fakes a little too often, doesn’t he?
- At one point the Thunder ran a pindown for Derek Fisher in the third quarter. It was at that point that I had to go into the bedroom to scream into the pillow for 45 consecutive seconds.
- But then again, Hedo Turkoglu played 12 minutes for the Clippers, so it could be worse.
- No Jeremy Lamb. Hard to see him finding any time with Thabo back.
- After just six turnovers last night, just eight tonight for the Thunder. That’s kind of absurd.
Next up: Home against the Pelicans on Friday