Things seemed to be going well for the Los Angeles Clippers in the early going of their Tuesday night matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. I mean, not perfectly — All-World point guard and leader Chris Paul wasn’t in the lineup, which, even if you love Eric Bledsoe (and we do), you can fairly call suboptimal — but their defense came out turned up, holding OKC’s best-in-the-league offense to just four points on 2 for 9 shooting through the game’s first six minutes. And while Clippers star Blake Griffin looked both attacking Serge Ibaka in the post and orchestrating the L.A. offense in the early going, Oklahoma City’s main man didn’t seem nearly as steady, as the combination of Caron Butler’s on-ball defense and the expansive threat of active L.A. help held Kevin Durant to a quiet 1 for 3 mark in the opening quarter.
Later, though, he got loud.
… and it quieted down a packed-out Staples Center. (Well, everyone but Matt Barnes, who seemed to pretty loudly wonder where the [expletive] his help defenders were.) As we’ve discussed, KD’s been doing that kind of a lot lately.
The dunk gave Durant 30 points — his 19th 30-plus performance of the season, second only to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, whom Durant just passed to become the league’s leading scorer this year — and pushed Oklahoma City’s lead to 16 points, which all but ended the game. (Then again, some — including Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press — might reasonably argue that the game was over when the 6-foot-10 Ibaka drilled a corner 3 on the previous possession. The shot came off a Durant drive-and-kick, natch.)
The Clippers kept things interesting in the final few minutes with a 12-4 run spurred by the combination of some mad-dash drives by Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford, OKC finally missing some shots and consecutive moving-screen calls that fouled out Ibaka and manufactured some much-needed stops for Vinny Del Negro’s team. The comeback charge never got closer than eight, though, and we’re doubting Durant and company ever really sweated down the stretch of a 109-97 win that pushed the Thunder’s NBA-best record to 33-9 and dropped the Paul-less Clips to third place in the Western Conference behind the surging San Antonio Spurs.
According to the play-by-play breakdown of the game, Oklahoma City went 2 for 9 from the field in the first six minutes and finished 1 for 7 in the 4:44 following Durant’s dunk. In the roughly 37 minutes in between, the Thunder were insane, hitting 38 of 62 shots — that’s 61.3 percent — against the league’s fifth-best defense. They were especially surgical in the third quarter, hitting 12 of 16 shots, including 6 of 7 3-pointers, in a 33-point frame that pushed the lead to 14 points and effectively tilted the game. OKC finished 15 for 27 from long range; those 15 makes were not only a season-high for the team, but also the most any Thunder team has made since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City before the 2008-09 season.
Durant shook off his cold start and underwhelming first half — 8 points on 3 for 8 shooting — to unlock the cheat code in the second half, scoring 24 points in less than 22 minutes on 9 for 11 shooting, with a perfect 5 for 5 mark from beyond the arc, and dishing five assists, including three created by his dribble penetration that led directly to wide-open corner 3-point tries. He ended with 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 41 minutes, and was ridiculous enough to render a pretty amazing performance by Griffin — a season-high 31 points on 11 for 19 shooting, 11 rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes — basically irrelevant. Now that’s saying something.