LOS ANGELES – Maybe Chris Paul would have made a difference. Maybe not.
It’s impossible to know what might have happened had the Clippers had their point guard and catalyst in the lineup Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He spent the night on the bench in his street clothes, and without him the Clippers just weren’t the same.
They went down in a hail of three-point baskets by the Thunder, whose 109-97 win at Staples Center established their position as the best team in the NBA. The proof: Their 33-9 record leads the league, one game better than the San Antonio Spurs (33-11) in the Western Conference and 1½ better than the Clippers (32-11).
If the Clippers hoped to use the game as a statement, it never materialized. Paul was scratched from the starting lineup after aggravating his bruised right kneecap Monday at Golden State, and it left his team short-handed.
“Chris controls the game,” forward Blake Griffin said. “He’s making sure guys are in the right spots. He’s always thinking, always talking. When he’s out there, he’s kind of your guy that you look to to see what we’re in or what we’re trying to do. It’s a little different without him out there.”
The Clippers went 3-0 on the road after Paul initially suffered the injury Jan. 12 against Orlando, but trying to beat Oklahoma City without him was another degree of difficulty, like driving on three wheels.
The Thunder made a dazzling array of three-point shots, converting 15 of 27 for the game and leading by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter. The Clippers gave up too many open looks from outside, and when the Thunder occasionally missed, they gave themselves seconds chances with their offensive rebounding.
“We were spreading the floor, and our guys were doing a good job finding the open shooter, and they were knocking them down,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Fifteen threes don’t happen very often for any team in this league.”
But the Thunder couldn’t miss. Kevin Durant was 5-for-5 on threes in the second half. He missed five of his first eight shots in the first half, then sank 9 of 11 in the second half and totaled 32 points. Russell Westbrook had 26 points, and he and guard Thabo Sefolosha combined to make 6 of 11 threes.
“We have to do a better job there, no question,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said of defending the three-point shot. “We’ve got to understand players’ tendencies a little better and run guys off the line.”
Griffin had a season-high 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but the Clippers struggled early in the second half and then withered in one decisive sequence in the fourth.
It started when Durant made back-to-back threes, giving Oklahoma City a 96-82 lead after the Clippers had surged to within eight. Then Serge Ibaka dropped in another three following an LA timeout, and suddenly it was 99-82. When Durant found an open lane and stormed in for a dunk uncontested, it ended the game with 4 minutes, 44 seconds left.
“I don’t think we did a very good job defensively overall,” Del Negro said, “but especially against (Durant). We were a step slow.”
The loss was the Clippers’ second in a row after a four-game winning streak. But even in defeat, they showed some of the swagger they had built during their first-half surge.
“We know we can beat them,” forward Matt Barnes said. “If we eliminate some of the offensive rebounds and open threes they got, it’s a different ballgame. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board, but we don’t fear anybody.
“We definitely respect them. They earned that win, but we don’t fear anybody.”