By Randy Renner, Senior Writer
For most of the first 43 minutes and 40 seconds of Thursday night’s Thunder-Clippers game OKC’s defense against a lineup of LA backups was about as bad as could be.
But for the last 4 minutes and 20 seconds the Thunder locked down the Clippers on defense and made a couple of huge plays to come from behind and snatch a thrilling 119-117 win.
Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 31 points, extending his streak to 60 straight games scoring at least 20 points. Russell Westbrook added 26 points and came close to another triple-double by adding 11 assists and eight rebounds.
He also made a heady play at the end of the game taking an inbounds pass with 2.7 seconds left and instead of risking a turnover or being fouled and perhaps missing a shot, he tossed the ball way up in the air. By the time it fell back the clock and the Clippers hopes had expired.
“I just try to make the plays that help us win,” Westbrook pointed out.
“That was a great play by Russell to throw the ball up in the air at the end,” head coach Billy Donovan added, “a great basketball IQ play.”
The victory drops OKC’s magic number to clinch the #3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs to just one game.
With 4:20 to play former Thunder forward Jeff Green hit a 3-ball, the Clippers 16th of the night, for a 115-110 LA lead. From that moment on the Thunder forced three turnovers and the Clippers missed four of their last five shots scoring just two points.
At the other end of the floor the Thunder did just enough, a couple of steals by Westbrook, a 3-pointer and an 18-foot jumper, a couple of free throws from Durant and a huge tip-in from Steven Adams for the winning points.
It all added up to a 9-2 Thunder run in the closing minutes to close out the Clippers.
“These guys are hard to play, give them credit,” said Donovan. “They shot the ball extremely well from three. I thought we gave great effort to hang in there.”
Donovan had warned about how difficult these sorts of games can be and so did Durant at shootaround. The Clippers rested most of their stars, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick. A couple more were either hurt (Paul Pierce) or suspended (Blake Griffin) and didn’t play.
But just because the Clippers had several guys in suits instead of uniforms it didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to win.
“I told our guys we’re resting those guys before the game, we’re not resting the whole team,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. We’re coming in to win the game.”
And for the longest time it looked like they just might do that.
The Thunder were frustrated all night long as shot, after shot, after shot fell for the Clippers. Austin Rivers set career highs in points (32) and made threes (7). He hit his first six attempts from beyond the arc and when he finally missed late in the game Durant, standing at the scorers table waiting to re-enter the game, shook his head and said, “wow he finally missed one.”
Jamal Crawford, who has been a Thunder killer in the past, was hot too, also scoring 32 points and he dropped five 3s through the nets.
The Clippers finished 16-for-29 from beyond the arc and shot 55.3 percent overall. In the first half they hit 63.2 percent overall and a whopping 69.2 percent on long balls.
The Thunder stabilized a little in the last 24 minutes holding LA to 47.4 percent shooting but still it was a disappointing night for the Thunder regulars going up against LA’s reserves.
“Obviously our numbers defensively don’t look great,” Donovan admitted. “But I thought the second half we really gave a great effort.”
A game that appeared to be an easy Thunder win on paper turned into a struggle because of that black line that curves around between the top of the key and halfcourt.
“The 3-point line is the greatest equalizer at any level,” Donovan said. “This was a night where those threes went down and really kept them in the game all the way through.”
Well all the way till the last four minutes anyway when the Clippers just took one, by Jeff Green, and missed. Rivers and Crawford, who had combined to go 12-for-17 from beyond the arc didn’t attempt a 3-pointer after Rivers missed from 25-feet just before the six minute mark.
They tried a couple times but Thunder defenders chased them off the line, finally controlling what had plagued them most of the night.
The Thunder will take Friday off before practicing Saturday morning and then flying to Houston to get ready for a Sunday afternoon date with the Rockets and who knows maybe making a quick side trip over to NRG Stadium to watch some Final Four hoops.