It wasn’t so much a showdown as a showup. Oklahoma City outclassed the Clippers for most of a 120-108 victory on Wednesday night at Cheseapeake Energy Arena that put more distance between the teams in the Western Conference standings. Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. The Clippers literally took one on the chin. J.J. Redick suffered a gash just below his chin in the fourth quarter, symbolic of a night in which the Clippers took blow after blow after a game that was tied in the third quarter became a blowout. “It was one of the rare games where we never established ourselves defensively,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said, “and I thought it bled over to our offense.”
The victory essentially clinched the tiebreaker for Oklahoma City should the teams finish tied for third in the Western Conference standings. Even if the Clippers win the next game to even the season series at two games apiece, the Thunder holds a huge edge in the next tiebreaker — record within its division. Oklahoma City is 10-1 in its division and the Clippers only 7-5. Redick said he would need a few stitches for his cut; the Clippers’ collective healing may require more substantive measures.
2. Defense was the primary culprit. The Clippers have been elite defensively since the All-Star break, but they certainly weren’t against the Thunder. Oklahoma City scored 39 points in the first quarter and just kept revving its offense. “You know, 39 points in the first quarter is unacceptable,” Redick said. “We’ve been a good defensive team, and we were awful tonight.” Said Clippers shooting guard Jamal Crawford: “If you pride yourself on defensive principles, you feel like you give yourself a chance. And tonight, our defense was nonexistent pretty much most of the night.”
3. Paul Pierce’s fade continued. The veteran forward has had a handful of nice games filling in as the starting power forward for Blake Griffin, but there have been more nights like Wednesday, when he missed all four of his shots and failed to find any sort of rhythm. Rivers pulled Pierce after only five second-half minutes. It will be interesting to see if Pierce’s minutes dip precipitously if Griffin returns later this month as expected. But if Pierce seems a step slow these days, it’s nothing new. “If you looked at Paul’s movements, you would have said he should have stopped playing 10 years ago,” Rivers said. “Paul is never going to jump off the charts with his speed, yet he has it. Paul is all about fundamentals and footwork.”
4. The absences of Griffin and Luc Mbah a Moute were deeply felt. The ensemble approach has worked nicely for the Clippers since Griffin last played on Christmas, but this was a night they needed more star power. Griffin would have given the Clippers a complement to Paul that could have matched the Thunder’s elite duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Mbah a Moute would have given the Clippers a defensive tone-setter and likely matched up against Durant. “For sure we miss him,” Redick said of Mbah a Moute, “at the beginning of quarters, end of games, special situations. He’s going to obviously play more if a team has a guy like Chris Bosh or Kevin Durant.” Mbah a Moute could return as soon as Friday against the New York Knicks after being sidelined since Feb. 29 by a lacerated left eyelid. Griffin’s return is not as clear. He needs to fully practice and be activated before serving his four-game suspension for punching team assistant equipment manager Matias Testi in January at a Toronto restaurant.
5. The Clippers will seek to right themselves during a two-game homestand. The Knicks will be up first on Friday, followed by a nationally televised Sunday matinee against the Cleveland Cavaliers. New York has continued to struggle under interim Coach Kurt Rambis, going 4-8 since Derek Fisher was fired. Cleveland has had a few recent stumbles as well, falling to Memphis on Monday during a night in which the Grizzlies had only eight players available.