OKLAHOMA CITY – About an hour before tipoff Wednesday night, Russell Westbrook was already playing solid defense.
He deflected questions with ease, swatting away any potential story lines before they could even develop.
He said facing Chris Paul and the hot-starting Los Angeles Clippers was a game just like any other. Nothing different. Nothing special. No holiday spirit. No playoff atmosphere.
But after, in a game that was in November only because the calendar said so, Wednesday night sure felt different. And the Thunder sure played different, too.
Oklahoma City beat the Clippers, 117-111 in overtime, won its first significant game of the season and sent Los Angeles to its first loss against a quality team, all in one 53-minute, very needed explosion.
“Almost,” Westbrook said of whether it felt like the postseason, relenting on his pregame stance. “Almost.”
Well, whatever it takes for the Thunder to play well. After all, this team saved its best for last a season ago in getting to the NBA Finals, playing much better than it has this season, despite a 9-3 record.
“I say it and I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, they’re all big,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I don’t put one more than another. It was a big win, but we have nine big wins this year. It’s not easy to win in this league. If you let up, it can cost you a win. We did a good job of playing 53 minutes of good basketball.”
It’s about time, too. The Thunder had gotten fat beating up on the lower-tier teams in the league, twice winning against Detroit as well as topping mighty Toronto and Cleveland. A road win against Chicago was nice, but honestly, when it came down to quality opponents, Oklahoma City was 0-2, losing to San Antonio and Memphis. Give the Thunder an 0-3 record if you want to throw in the home loss to Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Clippers came in 8-2 and loaded with big wins, including a pair of victories over San Antonio and wins over Miami and Memphis. That’s 4-0.
Of course, we knew the Thunder wouldn’t lose every big game just like we knew the Clippers wouldn’t win every big game. What we didn’t know is that it could happen like it did Wednesday inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Thunder first survived Westbrook and Durant’s off-shooting nights. Then they thrived with their superstars all while star Clippers guard Chris Paul went 2-of-14 from the field, including missing a 14-foot turnaround jumper that would have won the game in regulation.
“There’s not going to be many nights like that,” Paul said.
Yeah, no kidding. Durant was 7-for-19, and Westbrook was 8-for-20, but the two scored all of the team’s 15 points in overtime. Durant finished with 35 points, making 19-of-21 free throws and Westbrook scored 23 with nine assists and just three turnovers.
“It was a good game and a win that we really needed,” Durant said.
It’s only November. This wasn’t a season-definer, but it was within shouting distance of being pretty important. And Durant knew it, too. A loss to the Clippers Wednesday and the Thunder have to try to figure out when their next quality win would come.
Now, there’s a bit of positive momentum seized back from the Clippers and a pace-keeping mentality achieved with Memphis – the other team seemingly hotter and more successful than the Thunder so far this season.
“Tonight was one of the great games we’ve played defensively,” Westbrook said.
The Thunder stifled Paul, but also held the Clippers to 43 percent shooting, forced Paul into a crucial overtime turnover with his team down three with just under 1:30 to play. Durant made a pair of free throws after that, and the Clippers never got closer than four the rest of the way.
Playoff-level defense in November for a team that was looking for a playoff kind of win.
“The defense in overtime, we had a lot of good energy,” Brooks said. “Our guys dug deep and found the energy it took to win this game. You have to do this every possession.”
The Thunder hadn’t done that this season when it counted. Good thing the playoffs came early so Oklahoma City could find some inspiration.