Two straight losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies wasn't the way the Clippers hoped to come out of the All-Star break, but an exhibition-style 125-117 road victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday certainly helped ease any concerns.
One win is hardly a consummate bellwether or adequate means to argue the Clippers are championship or even Western Conference favorites, but they are right there, among various other powerhouses, cementing their status as legitimate title threats.
Don't think of this as one win. Think of it as a statement win.
Take it at face value, for what it actually is—a reminder the Clippers are here and for real, and aren't going anywhere.
Thunderstruck by Clippers
Beating the Thunder is no easy task. Ever.
Kevin Durant is a man alive this season, headlining the league's best team—sorry, Indiana—while giving LeBron James an actual peer. The Thunder have now lost two straight this side of the All-Star break since Russell Westbrook's return, but that changes little about this team.
Oklahoma City is still one of only four squads that rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency, per Basketball-Reference, and again, it still has Durant. And it had Durant at his best on Sunday.
The Slim Reaper went for 42 points and 10 assists on 50 percent shooting, living up to the moniker he hates while inciting new, equally harrowing nicknames in the process.
But the Clippers still won. Despite playing host to Durant's ninth 40-point game of the season, they won. It's just the second time all year the Thunder have lost when he scores at least 40 points, and just the fourth time they've lost when he goes for at least 35. It was also just the second time this season Oklahoma City failed to emerge victorious when registering at least 115 points; it was 11-1 beforehand.
When Durant scores in excess, like he has all season, the Thunder win.
Just not here.
All-Star Game-esque defense did nothing to deter the Clippers. Nor did a nine-point bench contribution. Neither did an un-Blake Griffin-like performance.
Sure, Griffin had 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but nothing came easy for him. He committed five personal fouls and four turnovers, and he shot just 40 percent from the floor. When pairing that with a struggling, nonexistent bench, the Clippers could have lost.
But they didn't.
Jamal Crawford (36) and Matt Barnes (24) combined for 60 points. Sixty. They also shot a collective 11-of-18 from downtown, rendering the Clippers damn-near unguardable. DeAndre Jordan stepped up with 18 points and 12 rebounds of his own.
The Clippers, hard up for depth, rose to the occasion, turning what could have been another Durant-led late-game execution into a victory. And they did this in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder don't lose (23-5). And they did all this coming off two tough, potentially demoralizing losses, making this perhaps their best win of the season.
Strike that: Definitively making this their best win of the season.
The Chris Paul Effect
Chris Paul is back, in case you haven't noticed.
Without him, the Clippers are good. With him, they're great, capable of churning out shot-for-shot victories against the Western Conference's best teams even on the road.
Against Oklahoma City, Paul's importance was on full display. He went for 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds, finishing two boards shy of a triple-double.
Although his shooting was suspect—5-of-12 from the field—he converted all seven of his free-throw attempts and hit a momentum-shifting three down the stretch.
That's what Paul does when he plays. He's big time; the best point guard in the NBA. Even when he's off, he's on, playing the role of a difference-maker. If he's not shooting well, he'll find ways to score, or find ways for his teammates to score, like he did in Oklahoma City.
Like he will do outside of Oklahoma City.
This isn't the extent of Paul's reach. One could even argue he had an off game, finding himself away from the ball more than usual as he persevered through an injured right thumb.
"I'm going to have to stop trying to steal the ball," Paul said of his injury leading into the game, per the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner. "But it is what it is. Just got to get through it."
Paul got through it. He visibly grimaced through it, but he got through it.
What does that say about him? That his near-triple-double efforts were modest? That he battled through injury to log over 39 minutes?
All good things.
As long as he's spearheading the Clippers' top-three offense, Los Angeles can find ways to win. It doesn't matter who the Clippers are facing or where supporting contributions are coming from; wins like these will always be within reach when he's on the floor.
Better Days Ahead
More wins are on the way for the Clippers, as is more help.
According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, assistance is en route to Los Angeles in the form of an oversized baby:
Glen Davis is a necessary addition and great acquisition. He's not the final piece to the Clippers' championship puzzle. He's added depth. And the Clippers desperately need frontcourt depth.
Aside from Griffin and Jordan, Los Angeles' presence at power forward and center is underwhelming. Ryan Hollins is simply tall, and the Clippers were smart enough to ship out Byron Mullens ahead of the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
"Big Baby" gives Clippers coach Doc Rivers someone he can actually play in replace of and alongside Griffin or Jordan, ensuring that he can give one of his two premier bigs rest without having to speak the words "Hedo [Turkoglu], you're in."
Don't discount the familiarity here, either. While under Rivers with the Boston Celtics, Davis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 rebounds in 21 minutes per game, proving to be a serviceable and effective reserve in limited playing time.
That's what the Clippers need. It's not all they need, but it's a start.
Any improvement at this point of the season for a team that's chasing a top-three playoff spot and fresh off unseating Oklahoma City in spite of injuries to J.J. Redick and Paul, and a topsy-turvy second unit, is something to note.
And for 29 other teams, something to fear.