Blake Griffin posted a double-double and led the team with 22 points and 12 rebounds. (Facebook/Los Angeles Clippers)
Chris Paul and the Clippers passed another early litmus test to prove their worth atop the Western Conference hierarchy by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-103.
The Clippers started the game on the right foot by getting an 8-0 lead to start the game. The Thunder, however, went on a 20-5 run to take the lead at 26-19.
Kevin Durant led all scorers in the first quarter with 9 points.
Matt Barnes had a sequence of two missed open opportunities from behind the arch, followed by an air ball from the deep right corner on the next possession.
With the Clippers offense under-performing, Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan returned to the game with 4:35 left in the second quarter.
Serge Ibaka was the most efficient member of the Thunder, scoring on his first four field goal attempts.
On the other end, J.J. Redick got off to an uncharacteristic start to the game by missing his first five attempts and then adding to his struggles by committing a clear-path foul on Durant midway through the second quarter.
A pick-and-roll between Paul and Griffin from the left side of the key led to a crowd-awakening dunk by Griffin, followed by a three-pointer from Redick to bring life back to a stagnant Clippers offense.
Paul led the Clippers back to within 6 points as the Clippers looked poised for a comeback, but their defensive output was not on par with the offense.
The Thunder seemed to have an answer to mostly every run by the Clippers, who looked powerless on defense for most of the first half.
Griffin was fouled hard on a put back attempt with 6.2 seconds left in the half. The trajectory of the foul led to Ibaka’s right arm being caught onto Griffin. A tussle ensued, and Barnes pushed Ibaka away from Griffin, which led to all players on the floor to separate the two.
Ibaka and Barnes were the primary culprits in the skirmish and were both ejected.
The Clippers came out on the winning end of this trade-off, as Ibaka headed to the locker room leading the Thunder in scoring with 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting, while Barnes left after shooting a forgettable 0-for-5 with no points.
The half seemed like it would end with the Clippers down 6 points, but a 26-foot three-pointer from Russell Westbrook with 0.02 remaining put the Thunder up by 9 heading into the half.
The Thunder started the second half without their starting center and power forward after Ibaka’s ejection and Kendrick Perkins being away from the team due to the death of his grandfather.
Paul brought the Clippers back to within 4 after feeding a wide-open Jordan on a nifty no-look pass with multiple defenders on him.
The Clippers tied the game with 4:14 remaining in the third quarter on an open-court dribble by Griffin where he looked every bit the starting point guard and finishing with a finesse layup.
Griffin got a three-point play the old fashioned way after being fouled on another fine layup in the next Clippers possession and sinking the following free throw to give the Clippers their first lead since early in the first quarter.
Jordan made Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ strategy to foul him intentionally backfire by sinking both his free throw attempts. Jordan took that momentum to the defensive end by blocking Durant on the following Thunder possession, which led to a Clippers fast break and subsequently Nick Collison’s fifth foul.
The Clippers played well on defense in the third quarter, especially considering Barnes’ ejection left them in a defender-by-committee scenario against Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer.
LA outscored the Thunder 30-16 in the third quarter to take an 83-78 lead into the fourth. This was a particularly good achievement considering the Thunder are the best second half scoring team in the NBA.
LA had six players score in double figures early in the fourth quarter and they quickly jumped to an 11-point lead, their biggest of the game at this point. The Clippers continued to lead by double digits thanks in large part to the Thunder going over eight minutes without a field goal.
The Clippers held the Thunder to five field goals in the second half until a three-pointer by Durant with 6:16 remaining in the game brought the Thunder back to within 9 points.
Durant ignited a run for the Thunder, however, and the Thunder cut the Clippers’ lead to five with 4:04 remaining.
Westbrook missed two pivotal free throws with 2:52 remaining that could have further cut into the Clippers’ lead. The Clippers took advantage on the next possession and created breathing room on a Jamal Crawford layup to make the score 104-96 with 2:24 remaining.
Crawford added the dagger from behind the arch with under a minute remaining to put the game out of reach for the Thunder. Crawford’s three-pointer kept the Clippers undefeated at home this season and put him ahead of Glen Rice and into 14th place all-time in career three-pointers made.
Griffin led the Clippers with 22 points and 12 rebounds, but Paul was once again the ship captain for the Clippers with 14 points and 16 assists.
Durant and Westbrook had 33 and 19 points, respectively.
The Good: Without a doubt, this game could not have been won without the improved defensive effort showed in the second half. The guards swarmed the Thunder on many occasions, creating momentum-changing turnovers in key situations.
The Bad: The Clippers continue to have prolonged stretches of bad defense. At times they succumb to other teams’ good offensive momentum and compound their problems lacking the defensive synergy characteristic of Doc Rivers-coached teams.
Next Up: The Clippers host Inglewood-native Paul Pierce and the Brooklyn Nets Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on Prime Ticket in what will be the first meeting between Rivers and his former players, Pierce and Kevin Garnett.