By Randy Renner
Oh what a difference a healthy lineup makes.
For just the second time since Christmas Day the Oklahoma City Thunder sent their regular starting five out on the court, a group that had played together in just 20 games this season, winning 17.
Now you can make that 18.
The Thunder played lockdown defense for three quarters then withstood a fourth quarter Clipper rally to beat Los Angeles 107-101.
The win almost assures the Thunder of the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They now lead the Clippers by three games in the loss column for that #2 spot and the Clippers have just three games left on their regular season schedule.
The Thunder also remain in the running for the top spot in the West. If the Spurs lose to the Mavericks in Dallas tonight the Thunder will be two back in the loss column with four left to play.
The Thunder took it to the Clippers from the beginning building as much as a 17-point lead. Russell Westbrook had a tremendous game with 30 points and 11 rebounds including an offensive board and a follow slam that helped slam the door on that late Clipper rally.
The Clips were playing for the first time since Sunday and the Thunder came in on the second night of a back-to-back and at the end of a grueling four game road trip.
Fatigue started showing at the end of the game, but Westbrook, who didn't play at Sacramento the night before, just kept on going. He hounded the Clippers at both ends of the floor and had it not been for him the Thunder probably wouldn't have had a happy early morning flight back home.
Kevin Durant had 27 points but suffered through a tough shooting night going just 8-for-26 overall and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc.
But KD splashed that one 3-ball with less than two minutes to play, keeping the Thunder just enough room to breathe.
"I’m going to keep shooting no matter what," Durant said after the game. "I could be 0-for-100 and it’s the end of the game but I’m going to let it fly and not going to care if I miss. That’s a part of my growth. I’ve missed so many of those shots late in games, but I’ve learned from them. And when the opportunity’s there I just try to take advantage of it. And tonight I was able to hit one.”
And it was a dagger right into the Clippers hearts.
Serge Ibaka had 15 points and four blocks and Steven Adams played one of his best games of the season backing up Kendrick Perkins. Adams was active on defense and set some nice screens on offense and was open for a couple of big slams too. Adams wound up with seven points, seven rebounds, a block and a steal.
Former OU star Blake Griffin led the Clippers with 30 points and Chris Paul had 25.
After three quarters last night the Thunder had held the Clippers to just 73 points on 39.4 percent shooting and had forced 13 turnovers.
The defense wilted a little in the fourth quarter as the effects of a four game road trip and the second night of a back-to-back took their toll.
In the last 12 minutes the Clippers shot 50 percent and scored 28 points. The Thunder shot just 30 percent so the old double-whammy of not hitting their own shots and not being able to stop the opponent from hitting theirs almost bit the Thunder again.
This time though Westbrook wouldn't allow it to happen with a couple of big time rebounds late in the game to extend a Thunder possession and prevent the Clippers from getting their hands on the ball again.
“You just got to come out with a ‘Why not” mindset,” Westbrook said. “That’s kind of how I think. Sometimes you got to just let it all hang out, and that’s what we did.”
In addition to his 30 points and 11 rebounds Westbrook also had six assists. He made 12 of his 24 shots, had two steals and just one turnover.
“It’s a big win,” Westbrook said. “Both teams were looking forward to this matchup. They were trying to see if they could make it to number 2, and we were making sure we wasn’t going to drop.”
Sefolosha played almost 24 minutes, probably a few more than Scotty Brooks would have liked but as the Clippers made their run late in the game Thabo had to be out there and he helped shut down Chris Paul who had started heating up.
Sefolosha told reporters after the game his left calf muscle felt pretty good.
“I really took my time to come back, to be as close as possible to 100 percent as far as how it feels, and I think I’m in a good spot,” he said. “I’m happy with the way it feels. I can play and not think about it. That’s the main thing.”
And now the Thunder can wrap up the regular season with their regular starting five back on the floor, except for Westbrook's likely absence in New Orleans Monday which would be the second night of a back-to-back set that starts Sunday at Indiana.
First though the New Orleans Pelicans will be here Friday night for the next to last regular season game of the year and another chance for that starting five to get re-acquainted.