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:
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.
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.