Los Angeles Clippers: Thunder

Rapid Reaction: Thunder 109, Clippers 97

January, 22, 2013

LOS ANGELES -- The stakes for this game were evident as soon as the Los Angeles Clippers’ players walked into their locker room and looked at the standings posted on the wall. Whichever team won Tuesday night's game between the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder would have the best record in the NBA.

Of course, neither team is looking to have the best record in the NBA on Jan. 22. They’ll gladly forfeit that short-lived honor for a playoff series win come May or June. But for now, you’ll take what you can get, and after Oklahoma City’s 109-97 win over the Clippers, the Thunder are clearly the best team in the NBA.

That might change when the Clippers play the Thunder one more time this season. Who knows, maybe they’ll have Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups back for that game, but until then, they’ll be looking up at Oklahoma City in the standings.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

No CP3

The Clippers surprised most of the league last week when they went 3-0 on the road without Paul and beat Memphis, Houston and Minnesota by an average of 14.6 points in the process. It showcased the Clippers’ depth and indicated they were capable of beating playoff teams on the road, even without their leader. Beating Memphis, Houston and Minnesota, however, is a lot different from trying to beat Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back without Paul. As well as Eric Bledsoe played defensively in relief of Paul, he struggled offensively, at least early on. He began the game hitting just one of his first six shots in the first quarter, and finished with 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting. Willie Green -- who had also stepped up his game in Paul’s absence -- was a non-factor, finishing with just five points.

Defensive lapses

When the Clippers were without Paul last week, they relied heavily on their defense. The team held Memphis and Minnesota to season-lows in points and made them earn every shot. Against the Thunder, that same defensive intensity was missing. Oklahoma City shot 52.6 percent from the field, led by Kevin Durant, who had 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and Russell Westbrook, who had 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting. The Thunder basically put the game away in the third quarter when they hit 12 of 16 shots from the field (75 percent) and hit 6 of 7 three-pointer (85.7 percent), led by Durant who had 11 points in the quarter.


Perhaps the only player on the Clippers who stepped his game up in the absence of Paul was Blake Griffin, who had 31 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. Most everyone else on the Clippers struggled to find themselves. Jamal Crawford struggled to find his shot, hitting just 6-of-18 from the field, while Caron Butler finished with only four points on 2-of-6 shooting. Not only did they struggle offensively, but many of them struggled defensively as well. If there was any question about Paul deserving to be in the MVP conversation after the way the Clippers played with him last week, he inserted himself back into the conversation Tuesday night while sitting on the bench.

Rapid Reaction: Thunder 117, Clippers 111

November, 21, 2012
Chris Paul has a list of firsts he’d like to achieve with the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s an ever-growing, ever-changing list that comes from talking with longtime Clippers employees, such as Ralph Lawler, who has been the team's play-by-play man for 34 years.

Paul will usually check to see if the Clippers have a certain losing streak against a team or haven't won in an arena, in the hopes of snapping each one during the course of the season. Sometimes, like on Wednesday, the milestones are small, but nevertheless important, as Paul continually tries to change the team's culture.

The Clippers had already started the season 3-0 on the road for the first time since 1996, but could have started 4-0 for the first time in team history with a victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. If Paul ends up re-signing with the Clippers in the offseason, he can add that to his list next season … considering the Clippers lost 117-111 to Kevin Durant & Co. in overtime. It was not only the Clippers' first road loss of the season, but it snapped a six-game winning streak and was their first loss against a playoff-caliber team following wins against the San Antonio Spurs (twice), Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Testing the depth

There are many reasons for Clippers’ success to start the season, but the biggest may be their depth. Their second unit has helped the Clippers jump out to leads of at least 20 points in five of their past seven games and has been so good late in games that the starters have turned into well-paid spectators in the fourth quarter. Injuries, however, have tested the Clippers’ depth early on. They were already playing without Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill before Caron Butler was ruled out Wednesday with a shoulder injury. Butler's injury forced Matt Barnes into the starting lineup, and he responded with his best game of the season, finishing with 19 points, nine rebounds and four steals. The problem is Barnes' productivity wasn't replaced on the bench as Lamar Odom, who is still not in shape, finished with four points and eight rebounds. It was Odom's best game of the season, which really says more about his season than anything else. But Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe once again stepped up, combining for 31 points and playing crucial minutes late in the game.

Paul’s rough night

There might not be a better leader in the NBA than Paul, but he struggled mightily from the field Wednesday. He was only 2-of-14 from the field and missed the potential game winner at the end of regulation. Paul, who hit only one shot in regulation, had some uncharacteristically poor plays late in the game, including a missed layup in a crowded paint with less than two minutes left and throwing the ball away on a pass in the paint in overtime. He was the constant voice of encouragement on the bench during the fourth quarter and could be heard on television screaming, "It's fourth quarter. It's winning time!" And huddling the team during a time out and saying, "We're going to win the game, you feel me? We're going to win the game!" The Clippers came close, but Paul was not able to get them over the hump on this night.

The comeback

The Clippers no longer take solace in moral victories or playing well in a losing effort, but there’s something to be said for the way the Clippers fought back on the road, trailing by nine points in the fourth quarter. The Clippers never led in the game but battled back and tied it, then had a chance to win it with the ball in Paul's hands at the end of regulation. You can't really ask for much more than that. The fact the Clippers were able to come back despite that Barnes had as many points (10) as Paul and Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter once again speaks to the Clippers' depth. But the Clippers need more production from their top two players in the closing minutes if they're going to win tight games on the road. In the overtime period, it was DeAndre Jordan (five points) outscoring Paul and Griffin (four points). As much as you like to see Jordan developing his offensive game, these are the moments when the Clippers need to have Paul and Griffin taking over.

Clippers join Thunder in elite class

November, 20, 2012
Chris PaulLayne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul and the Clippers have had success against the Thunder, a trend they hope to continue.

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick before the start of this season, most of the league's attention focused on the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was an understandable reaction. Many viewed the Lakers and the Thunder as the class of the Western Conference and saw the trade as Oklahoma City possibly conceding the conference to the Lakers.

Truth be told, the trade may have actually benefited the Los Angeles Clippers as much as the Lakers. Anyone who didn't view the Clippers as legitimate championship contenders before this season has had to re-evaluate their position following their 8-2 start, which has seen the Clippers beat the San Antonio Spurs (twice), Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and the Lakers.

No one was as shocked by Oklahoma City's blockbuster trade as much as Chris Paul. He called Harden when the trade went down on Oct. 28 and texted back and forth with his former Team USA teammate. Paul had switched teams before last season and the two discussed the transition and expectations of playing for a new team and in a new city.

Paul seemingly has close relationships with half the players in the league and certainly anyone he has ever called a teammate, and the trade genuinely took him by surprise because Oklahoma City had built what Paul hopes the Clippers can build in Los Angeles. They not only had a talented team, but a deep one that was tight off the court as well.

The thought of taking a sledgehammer to a vital piece of it and rebuilding the bench seemed strange.

Not that Paul and the Clippers mind it. They play coy when talk of being a championship contender comes up, but there's no question this team views itself as a championship team.

"We fear nobody," Matt Barnes said recently. "Teams need to fear us because of our depth and talent. We can't be awed by anybody."

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What to watch: Clippers-Thunder

April, 16, 2012
Clippers (37-23) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (44-16) at Staples Center, 7:30 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Casa Del Negro: Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has helped turn around the season and likely saved his job in the process by winning 11 of 13 games and staying within striking distance of the Lakers for potentially their first division title in franchise history. If nothing else, the Clippers are now just one win away from clinching their first playoff berth in six years. The ordeal last month didn’t rattle Del Negro, who said he simply went about his job in improving the team and getting through a rough stretch of playing 20 games in 31 days in March. “I didn't miss a blink. I kept on my path,” Del Negro told ESPNLA.com’s Ramona Shelburne. “What has to be done has to be done. I'm Italian. Are you kidding me?”

2. Learning to win: For the first time in their young careers, key players on the Clippers like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe are involved in a playoff run to end the season and playing meaningful games in April. None of these big games late in the season against Oklahoma City and Memphis can truly duplicate what a seven-game series will be like, but they are giving these young players who are still learning how to win a taste of what they can expect next month. “We’re learning how to win,” Del Negro said. “Knowing how to win in this league is hard. It’s easy to play in this league but it’s hard to win. We’re learning as a group what it takes to win and it takes time. Sometimes you get some bumps in the road but we’re trying to move this thing in the right direction.”

3. The L.A. 500: The Clippers are now 14 games over .500 (37-23) this season. It's only the third time that the Clippers have been more than five games over .500 this many games into a season since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. They finished the season eight games over .500 in 1991-92 and 12 games over .500 in 2005-06. Those are the only two seasons in which the Clippers finished over .500 since moving to L.A. The Clippers surpassed their victory total from last season on April 5, and their 37 wins are the most for the club since winning 40 in 2006-07. The Clippers' 37-23 record this season after 60 games is the second-best in franchise history, trailing the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves who were 38-22 after 60 games.

4. Tough end: After Monday night’s game against the Thunder, the Clippers will play four of their last five games on the road with the road games coming on two back-to-backs. The Clippers have actually been a good road team this season, going 15-14 (.517). The Clippers are attempting to finish the season with a .500 or better road record for the first time since 1984. The most road wins for the Los Angeles Clippers was 20 when they went 20-21 during the 2005-06 season. Because of the lockout-shortened season, the Clippers will not be able to hit that mark with only four road games left.

5. CP3 closes out: In his first season with the Clippers, Chris Paul has single-handedly rewritten the team’s record books and changed the culture of the franchise. Paul totaled 28 points and 13 assists in the Clippers’ win over the Warriors on Saturday. It was just the third time in the last 25 seasons that a Clipper totaled 28 points and 13 assists in a single game. The last to do so was Andre Miller on Nov. 28, 2002. Paul hit those marks 14 times during his six-year career with the New Orleans Hornets. Paul is the only player in franchise history with at least 28 points, 13 assists and 3 steals in a single game. It is the ninth time Paul has done it in his career.

Paul wills the Clippers to their biggest win

April, 11, 2012
Chris Paul tried his best to keep his composure as he took a seat on the bench during a timeout toward the end of the game. As Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City blasted the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town,” Paul licked his lips and fiddled with his mouthpiece before putting his head down and screaming an expletive.

Paul had done everything in his power to put the Clippers in position to pull off their biggest win of the season on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it didn’t seem like it would be enough.

Moments earlier, Paul had cut to the basket, missed an off-balance layup and amazingly tipped it in over Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka to give the Clippers a 98-93 lead with 1:19 left in the game. The next time down the court, Paul passed the ball to Blake Griffin in the paint with a 98-95 lead and 45 seconds on the clock. Griffin panicked; he passed the ball to Kenyon Martin, whose three-pointer was blocked. On the other end of the court, Kevin Durant tied the game, 98-98, with a three-pointer after being left open thanks to a textbook screen on Paul by Perkins, who dropped the 6-foot point guard.

After Paul picked himself off the ground, he sat on the bench during a timeout as Vinny Del Negro drew up a play. After the huddle broke, Paul gathered Del Negro and the coaches together for a quick huddle as if to say, “With all due respect to whatever you just said, I’m doing whatever I have to do to win.”

Every Thunder player on the court knew Paul would take the last shot for Clippers. As Paul dribbled the ball all the way down to two seconds on the shot clock and 10 seconds remaining in the game, they all seemingly braced themselves for the inevitable. Every last one of them was within arm’s length of Paul as he drove past them and scored what would be the game-winning basket to give the Clippers a 100-98 win.

Paul finished with a game-high 31 points, six rebounds and four assists; even more impressively, he scored 24 points in the second half and 11 points in the fourth quarter, hitting five of six shots in the final period. This season, in the last five minutes of games with the Clippers within five points, Paul is third in the NBA with 119 points. He is only behind Kobe Bryant and Durant in such situations. Despite being down by double-digits in the second half for the second consecutive road game, he would not let the team be denied, as it was Monday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, when they came back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter only to lose.

“This wasn’t the same team that played in Memphis the other night,” Paul said. “We defended well and we need to watch this tape and learn from it.”

After the Clippers lost to Memphis, the coaches wrote a number of telling statistics on the dry erase board in the visiting locker room. They had been outrebounded by 12 and only posted 15 offensive rebounds and 15 assists. The numbers showed a lack of effort and teamwork that simply wasn’t going to cut it with 10 games left in the season and seven of those on the road. The Clippers not only responded after that loss, but they answered with the kind of win that may make some rethink their playoff predictions now.

“This is a big win for us in a hostile environment,” Paul said. “It was a playoff-type game where we had to make adjustment after adjustment and our bench was huge for us.”

The win was even more important considering the Los Angeles Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs and the Grizzlies beat the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. A loss would have dropped the Clippers to the fifth seed in the West and virtually eliminated them from any hope of winning the Pacific Division. Now with games coming up against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers are just a game and half behind the Lakers and are still a half-game in front of the Grizzlies -- and hold the tiebreaker with Memphis.

“We needed that to keep our playoff run alive,” Paul said. “We haven’t locked up a spot yet but that’s what we’re trying to do.”

After the way they Clippers played Wednesday night, it looks like the Clippers might do a little more than just lock up a playoff spot by the end of the month.

What to watch: Clippers-Thunder

April, 11, 2012

Clippers (34-23) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-15) at Chesapeake Energy Arena, 5 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Dynamic duos: As good as the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been this year, nothing in the league has compared to the tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook this season. Durant and Westbrook are currently the highest scoring duo in the NBA, averaging a combined total of 51.8 points per game. Against the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 19, the duo combined for 91 points with Durant scoring 51 points and Westbrook adding 40 points. They became the first pair of teammates in NBA history to each score at least 40 points on two separate occasions during a single season. Meanwhile in L.A., with Griffin averaging over 20 points and Paul averaging over eight assists per game, the duo is the first set of Clippers teammates with those numbers in the same season since 1993-94. The Clippers have only had six other teammates average at least 20 points and 8 assists per game since moving to Los Angeles in 1984.

2. Tough trip: The Clippers will play six of their last nine games on the road, including three sets of back-to-back games away from home. After losing to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, the Clippers are now 13-14 on the road this season. The Clippers are attempting to finish the season with a .500 or better road record for the first time since 1984. The most road wins for the Clippers was 20 when they went 20-21 during the 2005-06 season. The Clippers lost to Oklahoma City when they last played the Thunder in March. Earlier this season, the Thunder registered a 14-game home winning streak which represented the longest home win streak for the Thunder franchise since the 1994-95 season when they were the Seattle Sonics.

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What to watch: Clippers-Thunder

March, 21, 2012
Clippers (26-19) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (34-12) at Chesapeake Energy Arena, 5:00 p.m. PT

Five storylines to track:

1. Century mark: The Clippers have had a difficult time scoring over the past month. They have failed to score 100 points in seven straight games and have only hit the century mark twice in their last seven games. Their record in their last 17 games is 7-10. Suddenly one of the top five teams in the league in points and assists is in the middle of the pack and descending. Even in the two wins the Clippers had at the end of their six-game home stand last week, the Clippers averaged just 91.0 points on 40.5 percent shooting in those wins as Chris Paul made half of his 30 shots and totaled 42 points in both games.

2. Young starts: When Nick Young arrived in Los Angeles on Friday and made his debut with the team on Sunday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said the plan was for Young to start at some point. Well, apparently that point was 48 hours later as Young started for the Clippers against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday. Young scored 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting in 36 minutes. He logged more minutes than any player on the team and finished with the third most points, just behind Paul, who finished with 16 points. It wasn’t a bad outing for Young but certainly went against Del Negro’s plan to bring Young along slowly.

3. Rotation confusion: One of the biggest problems for the Clippers this season is their constant roster changes have led to inconsistent rotations and many players not knowing what their role is on the team is. For example, Young was inserted as the Clippers’ starting shooting guard on Tuesday instead of Foye, who had started 28 games this season. So what did Foye do on Tuesday? He didn’t play. It was the first game he missed this season and it came because of the dreaded “DNP-Coach’s Decision.” On Sunday, one of the Clippers’ spark plugs off the bench, Eric Bledsoe, didn’t even get on the court but against Indiana he played 13 minutes. There’s certainly an argument to be made for match-ups, but there’s a bigger argument to be made for players simply not knowing what is expected of them on a nightly basis.

4. On the road again: The Clippers have now lost four of their last six road games and it will not get any easier in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have the third best home record in the NBA and registered a 14-game home winning streak earlier this season. Prior to the Thunder’s home loss against Cleveland on March 9, more than two months had elapsed between Thunder home losses. It will be a homecoming for Blake Griffin, who was born and raised in Oklahoma and played at the University of Oklahoma. Chris Paul also began his NBA career in Oklahoma City where the Hornets played for a couple seasons after Hurricane Katrina.

5. Nothing is free: There really should be another name for free-throws when the Clippers take them because they are far from a given. The Clippers as a team are shooting 68.6 percent from the charity stripe, which is second worst in the league. On Tuesday against the Pacers, the Clippers hit only 9 of their 20 free throws for a paltry 45 percent. The Clippers’ difficulty at the line should come as no surprise considering Blake Griffin (54.4 percent), DeAndre Jordan (48.1 percent) and Reggie Evans (48.3 percent) are three of the worst free-throw shooters in the league, and two of the three are usually on the court for the Clippers.