OKLAHOMA CITY -- For a brief instant, it looked as if Chris Paul would drain another game-winning shot in Oklahoma City to redeem one of the worst statistical nights of his career.
With 21 seconds remaining in regulation Wednesday night and the game tied at 102, the Clippers had a chance to hold for the final shot and escape Chesapeake Energy Arena with a win. Paul lives for moments such as these, when a nervous road crowd is holding its breath and the entire balance of a game rests in his hands. He is basketball's most reliable control freak, with complete and utter control of the action.
Russell Westbrook was given the assignment to defend Paul. The Thunder's lanky point guard dug, while the Clippers looked to give Paul every possible advantage.
Paul was being generous. He drove left against Westbrook, found himself stunted at the paint and spun counterclockwise for a fall-away jumper that clanked off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
"Every shot that I shot was short," Paul said. "When that ball left my hands, I thought it was going in."
It was that kind of night for Paul, who finished with nine points on 2-for-12 shooting from the field, along with four turnovers against nine assists. He spent much of the game being hounded by both Westbrook and the Thunder's defensive ace, Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder turned up the defense in the overtime period to escape with a 117-111 win over the Clippers.
"I think Thabo did a great job getting on top of [Paul], and so he missed a few and we got our hands on a few," Kevin Durant said. "It was a good game and a win that we really needed."
For most of the night, the Thunder employed a defensive scheme that was reminiscent of what San Antonio ran against Paul in the Spurs' four-game sweep of the Clippers in the conference semifinals this past May. On the Clippers' pick-and-roll possessions, Paul's defender would play up on his right shoulder, while the big man forced Paul to the left sideline, where he spent much of his night. As long as Paul didn't get back to the middle and, most importantly, to his right hand, the Thunder were satisfied.
"We just tried to put a lot of pressure on him," Sefolosha said. "We know he can handle the ball really well, so we tried not to give him any space out there."
Paul struggled throughout the game. That patented inside-out dribble rarely produced results, and those narrow windows Paul's passes normally find were shut. Blake Griffin had his way in the post, and Matt Barnes hit some timely shots in his first start of the season, but Paul never could establish a rhythm against a stifling Thunder defense that confined him to one side of the floor.
"We tried to get the ball in the middle, but [Serge] Ibaka is very long and Kevin [Durant] is long and [Kendrick] Perkins does a good job of defending the interior," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We didn't make the Thunder pay for loading up as much as they did."
It's difficult to classify a game played in the 100s during regulation -- and one in which the teams combined for 228 points in 53 minutes -- as a defensive struggle, and both the Thunder and the Clippers accomplished plenty offensively.
Oklahoma City punished Los Angeles from long range, hitting 11 of 23 attempts from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Clippers pounded the paint for 54 points on 45 shot attempts. The teams also combined for 72 free throw attempts, 21 of which belonged to Durant, who attacked the Clippers' overmatched wings relentlessly. The reigning scoring champ finished with 35 points to lead all scorers.
But the defining quality of Oklahoma City's win was its ability to shut down the league's most effective point guard. Even as they climbed atop the Western Conference, the Thunder have never established themselves as an elite defensive team. They ranked ninth overall in defensive efficiency in their march to the NBA Finals last season -- nothing to sneeze at -- but stand at 13th this season, just above league average. So the hit job on Paul was a notable accomplishment for a team desperate to prove to itself that it can defend.
"We did a great job of containing him and keeping him out of the paint," Westbrook said. "It's team defense, and my team did a good job of staying intact and staying focused."
As Durant mentioned, the outcome was a satisfying one for the Thunder. Quality wins are normally the province of college sports, but Oklahoma City, despite entering the game with an 8-3 record, had racked up its win total against cupcake opponents. This was a team in search of a signature victory against a top-flight opponent, and putting away a feisty Clippers team that went into the game having won six straight qualified as such.
Through all the drama surrounding the James Harden trade, the persistent rumblings about Westbrook's propensity to robo-shoot in iffy spots and rightful speculation that they should play more small ball, here are the Thunder on Thanksgiving morning, just one game off the Western Conference lead.