Even before Monday night's meeting between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder tipped off on the West Coast, the Clippers had already clinched their first playoff appearance in six seasons. When Denver defeated the Rockets in Houston moments before the start of the Clippers-Thunder game, the Clippers knew for certain that they'd be in the playoffs, many of them for the first time. But they didn't seem satisfied with going to the party through the back door -- they're intent on bursting through the main entrance.
For the second time in five days, the Clippers defeated the (formerly) best team in the West. Last Wednesday they did it by hanging around until the fourth quarter and letting Chris Paul carry them to the finish line. Monday night they did it with a dominating second-half performance that saw them outscore the Thunder 49-25 over the final two quarters, 26-11 in the fourth quarter alone.
Oklahoma City no doubt looked upon last week's loss as something of an outlier. After all, how many times are their mega-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook going to struggle simultaneously the way they did in the fourth quarter? How many times are those guys going to combine to make less than 30 percent of their shots? To score seven points combined in the fourth while shooting just 2-9?
Well, at least once more after that one -- only much, much worse. Westbrook began the game on a tear, scoring Oklahoma City's first seven points and nine in the first quarter. Durant had a huge first half, scoring 19. With their stars rolling the Thunder held a nine-point lead at the intermission.
In the second half, Durant and Westbrook scored a total of .... wait for it ... five points. They were 1-13 from the field, and made it to the free throw line just four times (and truth be told, those trips were a bit dubious -- the refs may have started feeling sorry for Durant). Westbrook was as invisible as he has been all season. After his nine first-quarter points, he did not score again. It was his lowest point total in 2012, since the third game of the season. More tellingly, while he averages 6.4 free throws per game, 10th most in the NBA this season, he did not make it to the line even once.
The Clippers have now beaten the Thunder three out of four tries this season, the only team in the league to do so. Have they figured out some magic formula for beating Oklahoma City? Well, shutting down Durant and Westbrook is a pretty good plan -- but it's a lot easier said than done. It's not clear that the Clippers have a special approach to defending them, nor do they have lock down defenders to put on them. Against Durant it was defense by committee, with Caron Butler, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin and Randy Foye all taking a turn. Westbrook squared off against Paul and some versus Eric Bledsoe.
Much of the poor performance is on Durant and Westbrook themselves. Durant missed all five of his shot attempts in the third quarter -- four of them were three-pointers. Westbrook likewise was settling for jumpers. Credit the much-maligned Clippers defense for keeping them out of the paint -- but seriously, no one really keeps those guys out of the paint unless they're cooperating.
As for the Clippers offense, they were led by Young with 19 points, his high as a Clipper. Acquired at the trade deadline to provide some backcourt size and another shooter, Young had not really had a break out game since arriving in L.A. -- until Monday night. In one sequence in the third quarter as the Clippers were erasing the last vestiges of the Oklahoma City lead, Young made eight consecutive points. Amazingly, he sank three straight shots (two threes and a toe-on-the-line two) from the same corner, on three consecutive possessions, and the Thunder never seemed to realize that they needed to cover him. He even got a clean look at the end of the quarter that he barely missed.
Blake Griffin had 17 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocks in a terrific all around game. The Clippers are undefeated this season -- a perfect 12-0 -- when Griffin gets five or more assists. In the decisive fourth quarter, Griffin had back-to-back pick and roll dunks that left the lead at 10 and the Thunder players shaking their heads. Mo Williams scored all 11 of his points in the fourth as the Clippers were breaking the game open. When the Clippers shooters are hitting perimeter shots, they are a very, very dangerous team. Monday night, Young (3-4), Williams (2-4) and Foye (3-4) combined to make 8-12 from beyond the arc. Things were clicking so well that Chris Paul only need to score 12 points, but of course he also handed out 10 assists. In the fourth quarter, when he usually has to provide the heroics, he rested more than half the time and scored just two points.
The Thunder were led by Durant with 24, but he shot just 7-18. James Harden and Serge Ibaka were the only other Thunder players in double figures, with 12 each. Amazingly, Ibaka had all of his points and seven of his eight rebounds in the third quarter, when he tried valiantly to keep Oklahoma City in the game, scoring 12 of its 14 points, mostly on offensive rebounds.
These two teams could conceivably meet as early as the second round of the playoffs. Will Oklahoma City be nervous about playing the Clippers? They can't feel great about it, after dropping three of four regular season meetings and being embarrassed twice in STAPLES Center. The Clippers on the other hand would have all the confidence in the world going into that series. Still, if Durant and Westbrook show up, as you assume they will, it could be a very different story.
With the win, the Clippers improve to 38-23 on the season. The have won four straight and 12 of their last 14. They stretch their lead over fifth place Memphis to two and a half games while closing to within a game of the third place Lakers. They are 15 games over .500 for the first time since 1975 when the Buffalo Braves finished the season 49-33. The loss drops the Thunder to 44-17, percentage points and a game in the loss column behind the San Antonio Spurs for best record in the West.
For all of Monday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.