By Ben Golliver
The Thunder held on to defeat the Clippers 117-111 in overtime on Wednesday night. Oklahoma City improved to 9-3 with the win; Los Angeles dropped to 8-3 with the loss.
• It took three full weeks, but the Thunder have finally achieved a quality win. That sounds a bit crazy but it's true: Oklahoma City's three losses came to San Antonio, Atlanta and Memphis, all teams that are above-.500 and sitting in the top-eight of their respective conferences. Seven of its eight wins, entering Wednesday, came against below-.500 teams. The eighth win came against the 6-5 Warriors, who are stuck in the middle of a seven-team pack separated by just one game in the middle of the Western Conference. The Clippers entered Wednesday 8-2, making no secret of the fact they expect to be a title contender this season.
There were hiccups for Oklahoma City, especially late, but there will be no complaining about this win, not after they dodged a potential game-winner by Chris Paul at the end of regulation and not after they got down to business, scoring 15 points in overtime to ice it.
The combined starpower and athleticism between these two teams can be discombobulating, but this game turned at the beginning of overtime. Oklahoma City pulled itself back together after giving up a seven-point lead by allowing an 11-4 run to close regulation, as Kevin Durant uncharacteristically missed a free throw, Serbe Ibaka fell overly in love with his jumper, Kevin Martin committed a bad turnover and Russell Westbrook couldn't get a contested runner to go down. For long stretches of this game, Oklahoma City played as if it didn't miss James Harden. Those final few minutes were the exception. In better news, overtime saw a return to the basics: the Thunder's All-Star duo of Durant (who finished with a game-high 35 points on 7-for-19 shooting) and Westbrook (who added 23 on seven-for-20 shooting) scored all 15 points in the extra period, including back-to-back threes to open up a four-point lead, one the Thunder didn't relinquish.
• Clippers center DeAndre Jordan has been nominated for the All-Star team and the Most Improved Player award by his teammates. There's no question that he's taken his game to a new level this season. Jordan finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and one block in 36 minutes against a solid Thunder frontline. Jordan hasn't always been a fixture of coach Vinny Del Negro's late-game lineups because of his horrendous foul shooting, but he played some of his best basketball late in this one, defeating the "Hack-a-DeAndre" strategy by sinking three of four free throws late in the fourth quarter and then scoring the Clippers' first five points of overtime.
Staying big by using both Jordan and All-Star forward Blake Griffin late in games has its advantages, especially now that Griffin has improved his own overall offensive game. It does put Del Negro into a lineup bind, and one that is only bound to get worse as guys like Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups get back healthy. As it is, Del Negro is forced to juggle late-game court time for Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, all three of whom made strong cases that for be playing alongside Chris Paul, Griffin and Jordan late. Bledsoe, a potential star in the making, did a nice job of harassing Russell Westbrook, helping force a miss on a key attempt late in regulation. Crawford, off to one of the hottest shooting starts around the league, finished with 20 points, applying consistent pressure to Oklahoma City's perimeter defense. Barnes impacted the game on both ends, playing his typical hard-nosed defense and chipping in 19 points and nine rebounds in 44 minutes.
The Clippers had multiple chances to pull out what would have been a huge road win, but got only three points from their backcourt in the last minutes of this game: one free throw and a lay-up once the game was decided from Paul. For most of that time, Crawford, the designated scorer, was sitting. You couldn't take Barnes out because he was playing out of his mind. You couldn't take Bledsoe out because he's the prototype for defending Westbrook. Stuck, the Clippers wound up not having enough offense to keep up. Had Paul played to his usual form -- he shot just two-for-14 and finished with nine points -- everything would look rosier and the juggling bind wouldn't get discussed. Getting outscored down the stretch by the Thunder in Oklahoma City is no crisis, but the Clippers could face some rockiness as they look to settle on an ideal closing five by playoff time. There are so many variables at play there.
• Now that Darko Milicic has officially been released by the Celtics, ending his brief run in Boston and possibly his NBA career to return to Europe to be with his ill mother, and Greg Oden spends his weekends chasing memories at Ohio State watering holes, Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet is the last mega draft bust of the past decade left standing. The crazy part: he's never seemed to be on more solid footing.
Clearly, that's not saying much, as Thabeet has spent a good chunk of the four years since he was the No. 2 pick in 2009 watching from the sideline. His career averages -- 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds -- are a punchline. After Cole Aldrich was included in the trade package that sent James Harden to the Rockets, though, the minimum-salaried Thabeet found himself in coach Scott Brooks' big man rotation. Entering Wednesday, Thabeet was playing 12.6 minutes per night, the most time he's seen since his rookie year with the Grizzlies, and while his numbers, 2.9 points and 3.2 rebounds, still aren't much, there's cause for (very cautious) optimism. Why? Because one of the league's rawest big men is starting to show flashes of polish never seen before.
Against the Clippers, Thabeet shot 4-for-4 from the field, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds in 12 minutes. On at least two occasions, he showed impressive body control around the hoop, contorting to catch and finish in a crowded paint. He's been crippled by both over-thinking and not thinking in the past; here, he was decisive and made only one obvious mistake, getting stripped after he brought the ball down to his waist. Where does this go? How long can the positive trajectory continue, and to what heights, for a player who is already 25-years-old and unlikely to achieve an overhaul in his limited skillset? Those remain open questions. We know this: he's still in the NBA and he's still contributing. Milicic's abrupt departure and Oden's total disappearance are nice reminders that life could be worse for Hasheem the Dream.