Westbrook scored 30 points, including eight during a critical fourth-quarter period, as the Thunder held on late for a 107-101 victory over the surging Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.
Holding a consistent lead throughout, Oklahoma City looked on the precipice of landing an emphatic and critical victory over a fellow Western Conference contender. The lead stretched to as many as 16 points in the fourth, and the Thunder were ahead 15 with seven minutes remaining.
But a critical 14-0 run spearheaded by Chris Paul changed the arc of the entire evening. Orchestrating the offense after coming in at the seven-minute mark, Paul hit two pull-up threes and pushed the offense down the floor to get quick shots near the rim. The Clippers drew the game within one point multiple times, setting up a collapse that could have set up a playoff-altering collapse.
Neither Durant nor Westbrook were willing to let that happen.
The two stars combined to score the Thunder's final 13 points in the last four minutes. Westbrook scored the first five, knocking down a jumper and following a Durant miss with an emphatic slam. Durant, who had struggled mightily with his shot throughout, then hit a ruthless step-back three of his own, and the pair knocked down critical free throws to close it out.
That was only the tip of the iceberg for Westbrook, who was the very best version of himself most of Wednesday night. Active on the defensive end and crashing the boards on both ends, Westbrook had 11 rebounds and six assists to go with his scoring output. With his season almost cut in half due to injury, this is the first time in 2013-14 Westbrook has gone for 30 points in back-to-back appearances.
Durant, whose 41-game streak with 25 or more points ended in Tuesday's win over the Kings, didn't have such a happy night. He scored 27 points but shot just 8-of-26 from the field, missing his first six shots beyond the arc. Matt Barnes and other Clippers defenders also held Durant as a shot creator (four assists) and on the boards (three rebounds).
Still, Oklahoma City's win all but wraps up the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder (57-21) lead the Clippers (55-24) by three games in the loss column with only four games remaining. Los Angeles would have to win its last three games and hope Oklahoma City drops three of four to have a chance.
Given the Thunder's play of late and their remaining schedule, that seems highly unlikely. They have a home-and-home against the flailing Pelicans with a trip to Indiana sandwiched in between before closing out the season Wednesday against the Pistons. The Thunder will be favored in at least three of those contests.
The Clippers' schedule is equally undaunting, but Wednesday's result all but cements the top of the Western Conference bracket with less than a week to go. While they looked to have no business hanging in this game at certain points, Paul and Blake Griffin in particular have to be frustrated with the loss.
Paul, only intermittently effective in the first three quarters, was spectacular down the stretch. Nine of his 25 points came in his seven fourth-quarter minutes. He also added eight assists and five rebounds, taking a backseat to Griffin until circumstance forced him to take over.
Griffin was the best player on the floor at certain points, finishing with 30 points and 12 rebounds. He was mostly nondescript during the Clippers' late run, though, taking only one shot and missing consecutive free throws that could have tied the game with under three minutes remaining.
Coming off their latest thrashing of the rival Lakers and winners of five of their last six games, the Clippers were decidedly sloppy at points. They turned the ball over 16 times to Oklahoma City's eight, shot an uncharacteristic 29.6 percent from three and went 21-of-34 from the free-throw line. DeAndre Jordan (10 points, 12 rebounds) went 2-of-8 at the charity stripe, as the Thunder grabbed his arm and fouled him at multiple points rather than allowing a dunk.
While many will look at this game and attempt to view it from a playoff sense, that's unfair. The seven-game series format allows for far more strategizing as the series goes along, and everyone is on an equal playing field. The Thunder, even in a victory, were playing with dead legs on a back-to-back. Who knows whether Los Angeles would have been been able to roar back without that help.
That said, this contest did tell most fans at least one thing about the playoffs: A Thunder-Clippers series stands to be very, very entertaining.
|Oklahoma City Thunder|
|Serge Ibaka, PF||C+|
|Kevin Durant, SF||B-|
|Kendrick Perkins, C||C+|
|Russell Westbrook, PG||A-|
|Thabo Sefolosha, SG||C|
|Nick Collison, PF||C|
|Caron Butler, SF||C|
|Steven Adams, C||B-|
|Reggie Jackson, PG||B-|
|Derek Fisher, PG||C|
|Los Angeles Clippers|
|Blake Griffin, PF||A-|
|Matt Barnes, SF||C|
|DeAndre Jordan, C||B-|
|Chris Paul, PG||B|
|J.J. Redick, SG||C-|
|Glen Davis, PF||C-|
|Jared Dudley, SF||C-|
|Hedo Turkoglu, SF||C+|
|Darren Collison, PG||C|
|Reggie Bullock, SG||C|
Players of the Game: Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers)
Every team needs an alpha dog. Few question that Paul plays that role for the Clippers. But there have been times this season—plenty of them, in fact—where you begin to wonder whether Griffin might be the Clippers' best player. Or, at the very least, on the precipice of becoming just that.
Once derided as someone who could "only" dunk, Griffin has one of the most varied offense games among bigs in the league. He's one of the handful of best passers at his position, a strong rebounder and vastly improved on the defensive end. There are times where you wish Doc Rivers wouldn't call so many plays for a Griffin mid-range jumper or he'll miss a defensive rotation, but the mistakes are getting fewer and farther between.
Myles Brown perhaps described his game perfectly:
None of this is to say Griffin had a perfect game. Far from it. I'm still trying to mentally comprehend what he was doing on that strange, dribble-heavy air ball he threw up in the middle of the third quarter. Serge Ibaka also did a stellar job of defending Griffin near the rim, leading to misses that would go through on most nights.
Still, when you're quibbling with a 30-point, 12-rebound performance, odds are a player is doing something right. No one should forget Griffin when looking at that fourth and fifth spots on their MVP ballots.
The Thunder also got a stellar night from their No. 2, as Westbrook pulled off the near-impossible this season—he outperformed Durant. Westbrook has been an even more high-variance player than typical since returning from his most recent knee injury, but he's starting to come into his own.
The oft-criticized (unfairly) guard has been strong in his last three appearances, each of which came against Western Conference playoff teams. Westbrook's jumper is still a work in progress, and he'll always make five plays per game that make you just give up on life—in a good and bad way. When he's cooking, though, Westbrook can confound any opposing guard.
There haven't been many nights where Durant has looked mortal of late. There probably won't be many more. But these games are pretty cool reminders that Westbrook is still one of the game's 10 best players, someone fully capable of carrying his teammates. The Thunder are scary good, folks.
The Thunder will have only a 24-hour reprieve to get home and prepare for their Friday meeting with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Clippers have a rare two-day April break before hosting the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night.
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