LOS ANGELES — When the NBA playoffs begin in April, the Clippers will know exactly which team presents their greatest challenge.
It won’t be their first-round opponent, although any postseason series is likely to be a significant test. It will undoubtedly be the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In three games this season, the Clippers have lost to the Thunder three times. Their chance to beat Oklahoma City and leap into the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference slipped away Sunday in a 108-104 loss at Staples Center.
The Clippers have beaten the Miami Heat once and the San Antonio Spurs twice, but they’ve been unable to solve the mystery of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 64 points and made key baskets in big moments.
There is no point considering a fourth-quarter comeback in which the Clippers erased a 19-point deficit and took a momentary lead with 1 minute and 30 seconds remaining when Jamal Crawford’s three-point jumper made it 100-99. They put themselves in an early hole, committing 10 turnovers in the first quarter, 16 in the first half and 21 for the game, a stat Chris Paul called “crazy.”
So at the suggestion the game could be viewed as a moral victory of sorts, forward Blake Griffin was dismissive.
“There is no such thing as moral victories for us,” he said. “We’ve been in this situation before, but we don’t want to put ourselves in that situation. The way we fought back, if you’re going to try and take a positive away, that’s good. We’ve got to be better from start to finish to beat a team like this.”
They weren’t, making it clear there’s a hierarchy in the league that consists of Miami, San Antonio and the Thunder, and if the Clippers want to be included in that group, they’ll have to prove it in the playoffs.
They’re not quite ready for prime time, at least not now.
They have every reason to believe they can play the Thunder on even terms. Take away their first half, when they were outscored by 13 points and continually gave away the ball, and the Clippers looked the equal of the Thunder.
But beating a team like Oklahoma City requires four strong quarters of play.
“The turnovers in the first half really put us back on our heels and gave them a nice cushion,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We could never get any rhythm because of our turnovers. I just thought we couldn’t grab the ball, we were losing it, trying to make passes in traffic and then we fouled them. We let them get to the free throw line.”
Paul called the first-half lapses “embarrassing.”
“That’s crazy. That’s not like us,” he said. “In the first half, they just did a good job of mucking the lane up. Every time I came down court, I saw a wall. They basically trapped me into ball screens. In the second half, we brought (Lamar Odom) in and we went small, which opened the court up. And once we opened the court up, we could get into the lane and make plays and fire up shots.”
In fact, the Clippers put together a 12-2 run in the fourth quarter and eventually took the lead, but after Thunder coach Scott Brooks called a timeout, Westbrook drove through the middle of the Clippers defense for a layup.
Griffin fouled out of the game on a three-point play by Serge Ibaka with 59 seconds left, and Ibaka’s free throw made it 104-100.
Only one minute earlier, Ibaka was called for a flagrant foul 1 on Griffin after smacking the Clippers forward’s arm on a rebound and hitting him in the groin. Griffin went down in a heap.
Ibaka probably should have been ejected at that point, but he stayed in the game and later converted the basket and free throw that doomed the Clippers.
Ibaka said he was only trying to free his arm from Griffin on the play, but it actually appeared the other way around.
“I guess it’s a chippy game like that every time we play,” Griffin said. “We’re both pretty physical teams with physical bigs. There was a lot of pushing and all that going on down low.”
Paul had 26 points and eight assists for the Clippers, and Griffin and Crawford had 20 each, but Durant’s 35 and Westbrook’s 29 were decisive for the Thunder, whose 16 losses are three fewer than the Clippers (43-16).
If nothing else, at least the Clippers know what they’re up against as they begin the final seven weeks of the season. They weren’t able to beat the Thunder in the regular season, but it doesn’t mean they won’t see them again in the playoffs.
And if that happens, will their 0-3 record against them have meaning?
“It doesn’t (matter),” Paul said. “I think last year we were 3-1 against them during the season and they got to the NBA Finals.
“Both teams are still building, jockeying for position and stuff like that. But we need to keep building up wins because maybe some time again later in the season we’ll see them again.”