Westbrook keeps calm, carries on
LOS ANGELES -- When was the last time you heard Russell Westbrook praised for his composure? How about the last time you heard one of Chris Paul's teammates say they wished he had the same mentality as Westbrook? It happens about as often as a seven-point possession, right?
All three of those things went down Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, where the Oklahoma City Thunder picked up an eye-opening victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. It's a game that resonates in the Western Conference standings, if not the psyches of both teams. The Thunder (43-16) are 1 ½ games ahead of the Clippers (43-19) for the second playoff seed, and the Clippers are now tied in the loss column with the No. 4 Memphis Grizzlies (38-19). The reverberations could even be felt when the Thunder play the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, if the NBA decides to suspend Serge Ibaka for striking Blake Griffin in the groin while jockeying for rebound position late in the game.
If Metta World Peace can get suspended for one game for striking Brandon Knight with a light uppercut, Ibaka should sit at least that long for his forceful downward strike below Griffin's waist. And he played a prominent role in the final two minutes.
The incident happened with 1:52 left in the fourth quarter. As Matt Barnes was making a 3-pointer from the right corner, Griffin was muscling between Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, grabbing a bit of both of their jerseys for leverage.
"When he grabs your jersey or whatever, you try to defend yourself and rebound," Ibaka said.
The downward punch had little to do with either self-defense or rebounding.
"It's not anything [where] I want to try to hurt him," Ibaka said. "I'm not that kind of person. I just try to play."
Griffin said: "It's basketball, man. Sometimes you take things a little too far, but I wasn't provoking him or anything like that."
As Griffin rolled on the ground in agony, the officials gathered and assessed a flagrant foul 1 penalty on Ibaka. That allowed him to stay in the game, but it meant two free throws and possession for the Clippers. Griffin made one of the two free throws, then Jamal Crawford drained a 3-pointer that erased the last of a 19-point Thunder lead and put the Clippers ahead for the only time all day.
How does a team recover from a seven-point possession? It helps if you have a guy like Westbrook, who generated seven points himself on the Thunder's next three possessions. First he drove for a layup. Then he dropped a nice pass to Ibaka, for a layup and foul to get a three-point play. The next time down he made a baseline jumper off a pass from Kevin Durant, then stuck around and sneered at the crowd before heading back downcourt.
"We did not do a good job of keeping our composure down the stretch," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Give Russell a lot of credit. He did. He got the guys together. There was some good dialogue with his teammates and we made plays down at the end of the game."
It was the timing of Westbrook's plays that made his 29-point, 10-assist game stand out more than Kevin Durant's 35 points and nine rebounds. We usually assume Durant will take over down the stretch. Westbrook often recedes to the background during that time. This time the roles reversed, with the defense keying on Durant, Durant found Westbrook and, in Durant's words: "I just let him do what he do, and he made a big shot."
Paul, meanwhile, missed three consecutive shots until he banked in a meaningless last-second jumper when the Clippers were down by four.
That meant Westbrook outdueled one of the top crunch-time players in the game, after he dominated the point guard matchup in the first quarter, outscoring Paul 14-4.
"He always puts pressure on the defense," Crawford said of Westbrook. "He's always in attack mode. And that's good for the team. Chris started attacking as well. I wish Chris was attacking a little bit earlier, in the first half, but he really got it going. We feed off of that and we went from there."
Paul scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half to lead the Clippers' comeback. But it was a case when he couldn't afford to wait for his spot and then take over late, which had been a winning recipe so many times since he got to L.A.
That was especially true with Griffin forced to sit for the rest of the first quarter after picking up his second foul four minutes into the game.
At halftime, Paul had four points on 1-for7 shooting, and the Clippers were down by 13.
"I think in the first half they did a great job of blocking the lane up," Paul said. "Every time I came down I was seeing a wall. They were basically trapping me off of the ball screen. I think second half, we brought [Lamar Odom] in and sort of went small and opened the court up. Once we opened the court up, we could get in the lane a little and find guys for shots."
Odom's plus-11 was the highest plus-minus for the Clippers on Sunday. Another Vinny Del Negro tactic that worked was his switch to a zone defense in the second half. That helped the Clippers get back into the game after an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers in the first half.
But the Thunder felt like they got a little something back themselves with this 108-104 victory. They had lost five of their previous six road games, including a last-second loss in Denver on Friday night.
"I just thought we really needed to get our identity back," Perkins said. "I know a lot of people look at us as an offensive team. I mean, we do score points, but we're ranked No. 2 defensively [in opponent field goal percentage]. We just had to get our identity back and be consistent."
They held the Clippers to 41 points in the first half and got some key stops in the fourth quarter. Westbrook won the point guard matchup with Paul, and if he can do that in the playoffs you can count on the Thunder advancing to the next round.
"Just being aggressive," is how Westbrook described it. "I was real stagnant. It was mostly my fault our team was just passing the ball around. My job is to stay in attack mode. That's what I was trying to do."
This wasn't typical Westbrook in many ways. Sure, there were the questionable fashion choices (tight Capri pants). But he was more expansive in his postgame interview than usual (certainly more than that night in Utah). He was in control in the fourth quarter, making all the right decisions.
Brooks said the Thunder thrive on Westbrook's emotion, and he leads in ways that we don't often see. What we have seen is him push it too far, fly off the handle. So is Sunday's Westbrook the version we'll see in the postseason? Put it this way: It's much more likely we'll have that than another seven-point possession.