Thunder leave no doubt who's best in NBA
LOS ANGELES — In the end, the Los Angeles Clippers did not have enough. Not without Chris Paul. Not against Kevin Durant. Not when the Oklahoma City Thunder strolled into town, buried 15 3-pointers, answered every Clippers' charge with a steely confidence and used a 109-97 win as yet another compelling case they are the best team in the NBA.
This wasn't just a win. It was a statement.
The Thunder, now 33-9 and at the halfway point of the season, are a better basketball team than anyone out there. Better than the Heat. Better than the Knicks and Spurs. Better even than the Clippers.
With Paul out, Blake Griffin was magnificent. He had 31 points on 11-of-19 shooting, 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block. His team responded, as well. They played a tough, gritty game; they fought and clawed despite missing their best player; and they held their turnovers to 10 with Eric Bledsoe running the offense.
It was a gallant effort that ran smack into a Thunder team that, like its star, is playing on another level than most anyone else.
It should certainly be noted that CP3's absence was an obvious and enormous factor. But equally obvious was the enormity of what the Thunder have become this season.
They showed it with Kevin Durant's 32 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. They showed it with Russell Westbrook's 26 points. They showed it with a bench that in the first half delivered a surge of energy and efficiency form Nick Collison (eight points) and Kevin Martin (11 points) that kept the Thunder treading water long enough for Durant to come out in the second half and take over the game.
"They have the best record in the NBA for a reason," Griffin said.
He's right. They do.
The Thunder are armed with almost every conceivable weapon you could want before setting out to chase a title, and almost all of them were on display at the Staples Center. They have one of the two best players in basketball in Durant, a scoring prodigy who is in the midst of an offensive season that is historical in its greatness.
They have a dynamic point guard in Westbrook. They have in Serge Ibaka, their third star and the person they bet on in a big way last season, a player who's responded by upping his game this season — his scoring has jumped from 9.1 points per game to 14.0.
The Thunder have the best offense in the league and a top-10 defense. Hardened by the bitter taste of losing in the Finals to the Heat last season — the same lesson that in turn made Miami into the team that could win that series — the Thunder have been remarkably efficient, they've managed to get better rather than worse after trading away blooming star James Harden and they finally play like they fear absolutely no one.
It's true the Clippers, arguably the league's second-best team, were without their own star player Tuesday night. Paul sat out after more soreness from a bruised right kneecap that's hobbled him this month. But they're still a very good team that was playing at home, played with great energy and proved a sturdy test for Oklahoma City.
Every time the Clippers came at the Thunder and tried to wrestle away control of the game, Oklahoma City answered. That's what the best teams do. They answer the challenges thrown before them. They dig deep. They win more of the moments that are turning points in games and seasons than anyone else.
The Clippers gutted out a very good first quarter, ending the period with the score tied, and took the lead on the first possession of the second quarter. The Thunder promptly went on a 13-2 run. The Clippers cut a nine-point second-quarter lead to four at halftime. The Thunder responded by opening the second half with a 13-4 run. The Clippers made a late charge at the end of the game. The Thunder calmly put an end to that, too.
"We did a good job of just taking them out of their game," Westbrook said. "They get involved and their crowd gets involved and it is tough to beat them out there."
Not as tough when you have the best offense in the NBA.
The Thunder were scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions entering the game. They came to Los Angeles with the seventh-best defensive rating in the league. They have the second-best field-goal defense, too. They score 7.6 more points per 100 possessions than the league average, a number that underscores how thoroughly Oklahoma City can dominate on both sides of the court.
The Clippers experienced all of this. They were held to 46.4 percent field-goal shooting, they watched Oklahoma City shoot 52.6 percent from the floor (55.6 percent from beyond the arc), and with their own star sidelined they watched Durant weave his magic on their home turf.
The Clippers are very, very good.
But the Thunder — armed with last year's Finals lessons, Durant and Westbrook's continued growth, and a sense of itself as a team that can only be found through time and hardship — are something more.
They're the best team in the league.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or
email him at email@example.com.