On an afternoon when their two superstar players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, combined to shoot an unspectacular 11-27 from the field, the Los Angeles Clippers still managed to get a crucial road win over the team with the best record in the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Who needs Paul and Griffin when Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes are combining to score 60?
It's not a particularly sustainable recipe for success, counting on Barnes to make six of his first seven three pointers (he finished 6-10 on the day) but I'll take the W. I guess I don't feel quite so sheepish about it given that Derek Fisher came off the Thunder bench to make his first five three pointers, a couple of them pure heat checks that went in. (Why the 39 year old Fisher is taking heat check threes on that team is a different question.) In the final analysis, Barnes' unsustainable production was more or less balanced by Fisher's and the Clippers still manged to win the game.
When the Thunder made four three pointers (three by Fisher and one a straight unfair pull up from Kevin Durant to end the third quarter) in the midst of an 18-4 run to cut a 15 point Clippers' lead down to one point, it didn't feel like it was going to be a win. Nor did it help that referee Scott Foster seemed to be doing everything he could to help the Thunder, including a bizarre three second violation on Blake Griffin in the final three minutes of a tie game. But despite the subsequent Durant three that gave the Thunder their first lead of the second half, the Clippers kept their composure and closed the game on a 13-2 run for their biggest road win of the season.
It was the fifth time this season that the Clippers have taken a two game losing streak into a game, and the fifth time they've come away with a win. They have yet to lose three straight in the Doc Rivers era, which may or may not be significant in the big picture.
Griffin's struggles were not insignificant in the game. It was arguably his worst outing of the 2014 calendar year in 26 games. He managed to score 20 points, but was only 6-15 from the field, and unlike the vast majority of his games for the last three months, he never seemed to figure out the OKC defense. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison and Steven Adams played him physically and he failed to find the space to use his quickness against them. He did get to the line frequently, where he was 7-10, and he also handed out six assists.
Right up until game time, Paul was considered 50-50 to play because of a sprained thumb and while he shot better than he had in the last two games (he was 5-12 Sunday after being 5-23 since the All Star break) he was not the offensive force he can be. He did however flirt with a triple double, adding 12 assists and eight rebounds.
The additional offensive load in what turned out to be a shoot out was shouldered by Crawford (36 points) and Barnes (24), with each of them coming within a point of their season high, and DeAndre Jordan who added 18 points on 6-6 from the field. The Clippers' three non-All Star starters combined to shoot 27-40 and make 11 three pointers -- an effective field goal percentage among the three of them of over 81%. It was a good thing too, as the bench was once again missing in action, outscored by Fisher 15-9 (and by the OKC bench 31-9).
I don't watch Oklahoma City every day of course, but I think it's probably fair to say that the team was better while Westbrook was out injured than they are at this specific moment, trying to reintegrate him. Obviously they have to do it and they'll be better in the long run for having down so, but he struggled with his shot for the second straight game, and he can't really bring himself to change his hyper-aggressive nature. He finished the game 3-13 from the field and scored 13 points in 25 minutes, and while there were several questionable shots along the way, one in particular stands out as particularly Westbrookian. The Clippers led by four with 40 seconds remaining after a crucial basket by Crawford. At the time Durant was 15-30 for 42 points, not to mention that he's the best offensive basketball player on the planet. Westbrook took the inbounds pass, dribbled into the front court, and shot a contested three with 35 seconds left. Getting a quick shot was a good idea -- not letting Durant actually touch the ball? Not so much. Griffin grabbed the rebound and Paul made two free throws to put the game out of reach.
The Thunder have been by far the most impressive team in the Western Conference this season in terms of their results, but their crunch time lineup in this game certainly didn't look impressive, at least not to my eyes. Am I the only one that feels like closing with three point guards (Westbrook, Jackson and Fisher), Durant and Ibaka is questionable? Brooks was probably just playing the hot hand in Fisher, but even so -- who is the fifth guy you want on the floor there? Perry Jones barely got off the bench today. Brooks doesn't appear to trust Jeremy Lamb. They were without Kendrick Perkins in this game, but he's clearly not the answer. Durant will win you a lot of games, but can he win them all with that group? We'll see.
It's a great win, if not necessarily a great recipe for winning. As they did against a high power Portland offense before the All Star break, the Clippers defense gave up a ton of points in the game, but got some crucial stops down the stretch. When they were able to get the ball out of Durant's hands, no one else managed to hurt them down the stretch. (I'll give Westbrook the late three he made all day long -- he's 30% on the season and on his career, and if it gave him confidence to hoist more jump shots in the final two minutes, so much the better.) Durant certainly gave them an unexpected bonus when he missed a pair of foul shots, but the Clippers defense earned the rest of their stops.
A win like this certainly eases the sting of back-to-back losses to the Spurs and Grizzlies, but one still gets the impression that the Clippers have yet to play anything close to their best basketball. With confirmation that Glen Davis will sign with the team later today, the bench will be a very different and hopefully much improved entity in a few weeks. J.J. Redick will at some point return to the starting lineup and Crawford will slide back to his familiar sixth man role, and Crawford and Davis will make a reserve unit that currently looks terrible suddenly look pretty formidable. After a win like this one and seeing the potential improvements on the horizon, it's easy to get excited about the teams prospect in the postseason.