In a game that could have significant playoff implications, the Oklahoma City Thunder survived a nail-biter against the Los Angeles Clippers, winning 108-104. In a marquis Sunday afternoon match-up, the 2nd and 3rd best teams in the Western Conference put on a great display of momentum basketball, with the Thunder controlling the first half while the Clips dominated the 2nd. The net result was a 2 point game with under 30 seconds to play, an exciting ending between two very good contending teams.
The Thunder were led by Russell Westbrook, who outplayed his All-Star counterpart Chris Paul by scoring 29 points on 11-20 shooting to go along with 10 assists and 6 rebounds. Kevin Durant was the game's high scorer with 35 points, although Durant struggled from the field in the 2nd half and finished shooting 10-25.
The Clippers were led by Chris Paul, who scored a team-high 26 points but struggled from the field, shooting only 8-21 from the floor. However, CP3 did lead the comeback from 19 points down in the 3rd, and was aided by the hot shooting bench player Jamal Crawford, who scored 20 points, including 4-5 from 3-point range.
The win means that the Thunder have swept the Clippers in the regular season, taking the series 3-0.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Thunder bias aside, this is the second game in a row where OKC played in an outstandingly entertaining game. This time out, their fortunes were reversed from their Friday night loss. Against the Nuggets, OKC fell behind early, staged a big comeback in the 4th, but were then beaten at the end due to clutch play by Ty Lawson and a failure to manufacture points late in the game. This time out, OKC led for almost the entire game, watching their lead balloon to 19 points before the Clippers started their own comeback. The Clips actually caught the Thunder with 1:30 left to play in the game, and all of the bad memories from the Nuggets game as well as a number of others where OKC fell apart late began to resurface.
Fortunately for the Thunder, they passed a formidable gut-check moment and quickly collected themselves, running off 5 straight points to go back up by 2 possessions. Finally, with the game on the line, the Thunder did something a bit different. They went away from a struggling Durant and put the ball in the hands of Russell Westbrook, who knocked down a clutch baseline jumper with 26 seconds to play. The Thunder finally got the defensive moment that we had been hoping for, surviving a final Clippers possession that saw 4 missed shots and 4 offensive rebounds. Chris Paul finally made a bucket, but it was with only a second remaining, which made the conclusion academic.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
The Thunder played a good/great first half. It was the kind of 24 minute stretch that absolutely convinces an onlooker that the Thunder are in the Heat's class. OKC came out with an aggressive defensive game plan, forcing the ball out of Chris Paul's hands, crashed down hard on Blake Griffin any time he caught the ball in the post, and challenged the Clippers' shooters in most occasions. The net result was a 13 point half-time lead where the defense forced 15 turnovers, including 3 from Paul. The Clips scored only 41 points and were completely out of sorts.
On the offensive end, Westbrook and Durant were working a remarkable 2-man game, taking turns setting up the other. As a result, Westbrook got easy looks at the rim and Durant got great looks from 3-point range. The pair shot a combined 13-25 and scored 37 points. Also encouraging was the fact that the Thunder bench looked much more composed and confident during their opening stretch of the 2nd quarter. The Clippers' bench is one of the best in the league, yet OKC held their own through a combination of strong defense and allowing PG Reggie Jackson to attack the defense. Jackson looked very good in continuing the work that Westbrook had set up, and in the end they only lost 2 points off the Thunder lead.
The only blemish, and it proved to be a major one, was that the Thunder continued their strange struggle at the charity stripe. The Thunder missed 8 free throws in the first half, which could have meant that a 13 point lead could easily have been 20. More critical though, it meant that they were leaving the door open for a potential comeback by not taking advantage of every opportunity the Clippers had given them.
The second half though...that was a different story. We'll get to that.
Suffice to say here, the Thunder blew a 19 point lead and looked dead-to-rights. With 90 seconds remaining, the Clippers completed their comeback by completing a remarkable 7 point possession that included a Matt Barnes 3-pointer, a Serge Ibaka Flagrant-1 foul, a free throw, and then a second 3-pointer by Jamal Crawford. A 6 point lead had impossibly turned into a 1 point deficit without the possession arrow ever moving. OKC was trailing, Kevin Durant looked lost, and LA's home crowd was rocking. It appeared to be another collapse in the making.
Russell Westbrook then stepped up.
In what is becoming a remarkable show of growth for Westbrook, he made 3 huge plays in the final 90 seconds to keep his team in the game. He first made a driving layup to give OKC back the lead. Westbrook followed it up by running a great pick and roll with Ibaka, who finished an and-1 play which both gave OKC a 2 possession lead and also fouled out Griffin. Lastly, Westbrook and Durant ran a great 2-man play that sprung Westbrook open for a baseline jumper, which he buried. It was one of the best end-game sequences we've seen from Westbrook in his entire career and it's exciting to see his command of the game meld with his other-worldly natural talent.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
If the 1st half was a vintage Thunder performance, the 2nd half was the re-accumulation of all the anxieties we feel about them on an every-other-game basis.
Controlling the game and up by 19 with under 4 minutes to play in the 3rd, the Thunder finally endured the expected Clippers run. Led by Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, the Clippers finally got their offense clicking. After a paltry 41 points in the 1st half, the Clips scored 63 points in the 2nd in an aggressive run to not lose to OKC on their home court and be swept in the regular season series.
What made the next 15 minutes of game time particularly painful was that the Clips threw a new defensive look at the Thunder and OKC looked completely lost. As Steve Perrin writes at Clips Nation:
The Clippers may also have found a vulnerability in the vaunted Thunder offense. The game turned -- and I mean 180 degrees, turned on a dime -- when the Clippers began to employ a 1-2-2 zone in the third quarter. The Thunder were taken out of any semblance of offensive rhythm by the zone, and Kevin Durant admitted as much after the game. Will that zone be effective in the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not, but you can rest assured that the Thunder are going to see plenty of it if they end up facing the Clippers.
What resulted was something akin to watching an NCAA tournament game where a team runs into Syracuse and sees their vaunted 2-3 zone defense for the first time. The Thunder looked completely lost on offense and had no idea how to either attack the zone or even swing the ball effectively for open 3-point shots. More often than not, the possessions ended with a desperation 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. OKC managed only 7 points during the first 6 minutes of the final quarter, the last being a ridiculously tough Westbrook 19 foot jumper that came after LA closed their lead to a mere 2 points.
The stretch was brutal to watch because it was such a concurrence of LA playing great offense and defense while the Thunder could do neither. Fortunately, OKC figured out a better plan of attack over the final 4 minutes of play and had just enough offense in the end to seal the win.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
Despite the near-total collapse in the end, the Thunder earned a win that they had not been earning as of late. OKC had been on an abysmal run of terrible 4th quarters in close games where they saw their offense disappear and their defense become porous. Most surprisingly, Kevin Durant has struggled greatly during the ends of games. OKC is not creating good scoring opportunities for Durant and too often he is settling for long jump shots. Today though, perhaps because of this, Westbrook stepped up in a major way and delivered the game to the Thunder. It was not pretty, but it certainly felt better than watching Kyrie Irving, James Harden, or Ty Lawson swipe the game out from under them in the end.
The other notable element to this game, and it is not a favorable one, is the aforementioned Flagrant-1 foul on Serge Ibaka at the end of the game. Here it is:
Yeah...that doesn't look good. For anybody.
As our man Zorgon tweeted during the game:
Finally, we have a win to feel good about. Still, can't help feeling we cheated a bit. Ibaka should have been ejected.— Welcome To Loud City (@WTLC) March 3, 2013
If Ibaka had received a Flagrant-2 foul on this play, he would have been ejected and therefore not on the court to finish his and-1 play at the end. Even so, this play will no doubt be reviewed by the league office and at the very least, a fine will be coming. A suspension is unlikely, but given the blatantness of the play, it's not out of the question either, which means Ibaka may have put himself at risk on Tuesday vs the Lakers.
Lastly, some parting words of wisdom going forward:
Lessons? Don't play KD for 45 minutes. (No FG in the 4th.) Don't go small when you're getting killed in the paint. No genital karate chops.— Welcome To Loud City (@WTLC) March 3, 2013
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 29 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, 1 steal
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, 35 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, for his whack-a-mole lapse in judgment against Blake Griffin
Thunder Plunderer: Jamal Crawford, 20 points, 4-5 from 3-point range
Next game: vs the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, March 5th, at 8:30PM CDT
If you are looking for tickets to upcoming games, you can find Oklahoma City Thunder tickets here.