The Los Angeles Clippers went into Wednesday night's showdown in Oklahoma City against the Thunder having won eight of their last 10 games. But the two losses, against the third-place Lakers and the fifth-place Grizzlies, loomed large. With the Clippers clinging to the fourth spot in the Western Conference, just a half-game ahead of the Grizzlies, it seemed like maybe they couldn't win the big games, the ones that really matter. Facing the best team in the West on the road, Wednesday's game would be another such test.
And this time the Clippers passed with flying colors. On a night when Chris Paul did more scoring (31 points) than passing (four assists), his acrobatic layup with eight seconds remaining in a tie game proved to be the final margin. Kevin Durant, whose three-pointer 30 seconds earlier had tied the game, missed a potential game winner in the final seconds and the final buzzer sounded during the struggle for the rebound.
With both Memphis and the Lakers winning their own games Wednesday night, the Clippers had to have this win to stay ahead of the Grizzlies and keep pace with the Lakers. They did it in somewhat atypical fashion -- with Paul looking to score, and with tough defense. The Clippers held the Thunder to 41 percent shooting on the game, with superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining to shoot less than 30 percent.
The Clippers outscored Oklahoma City, 24-18, in the fourth quarter, taking their first lead since 6-5 with seven straight points and then building a five-point lead, their biggest of the game, with seven more in a row a few moments later. L.A. forced the Thunder to shoot 6-19 in the final period -- holding Durant and Westbrook to just seven points between them on 2-12 shooting.
If the conference standings remain as they are, the Clippers and Thunder could be headed for a meeting in the conference semifinals. The Clippers have now won two of three between the teams with a fourth and final meeting coming up Monday in L.A. Winning in Oklahoma City will no doubt give the Clippers confidence should they have to face the Thunder in the postseason.
Paul invariably looks to distribute early in games, but he also happens to be L.A.'s most reliable scorer, and the team simply performs better when he is aggressive on offense. He entered the game in a shooting slump, making just 37 percent of his field goals in the last five games. He started off cold Wednesday as well -- a minute before halftime he was 1-6 for two points. He proceeded to make 10 of his next 14 shots, scoring 29 points in his next 21 minutes on the floor, including nine of L.A.'s 11 in the final six minutes.
Lost amid his fourth quarter heroics were some equally important though subtle plays in the third. Twice in the first four minutes of the second half Paul coaxed Thunder defenders into fouls in the back court -- the second of which put the Clippers into the bonus with more than eight minutes remaining in the quarter. The Clippers scored half of their 28 third quarter points at the foul line, making all 14 of their attempts.
Blake Griffin had an outstanding overall game, with 16 points and game highs in rebounds (12) and assists (7). Kenyon Martin and Nick Young had 12 and 10 off the bench. The Clippers, the second worst free throw shooting team in the league, made 19-21 from the line, the first time this season the team has made over 90 percent while shooting more than 10 free throws.
The Thunder were led by Durant with 22, but it took him 21 shots to get there. Westbrook was abysmal from the field, missing 11 of 14 shots, but he got to the line 15 times, converting 13 of them to finish with 20 points. In contrast to Durant and Westbrook, James Harden came off the bench to get his 17 points on just eight shots. The Thunder managed to lead most of the way despite shooting relatively poorly overall on the strength of their three point shooting, as they made 12-26 from deep.
With the win the Clippers move to 35-23 overall and even their road record at 14-14. They also maintain their half game lead over Memphis for fourth place in the West, with the difference between fourth and fifth determining home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. L.A.'s magic number to clinch their first playoff berth in six years is four with Phoenix, three with Utah.
Oklahoma City drops to 42-16 overall, 24-6 at home, but they catch a break in the standings as the Lakers win over the Spurs allows the Thunder to retain first place in the conference.
For all of Wednesday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.