LOS ANGELES — There’s a reason Scott Brooks doesn’t put a ton of stock into seeding.
And it’s real simple.
“It’s not about who has the best seed,” the Thunder coach said before a pivotal showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers that would go a long way in determining just that.
“It’s about who can win four out of seven.”
Oklahoma City is confident it can win anywhere, against anyone — including the Clippers.
But the Thunder, with an authoritative 107-101 win over the Clippers on Wednesday night inside Staples Center, only helped itself hold off having to prove it can do that in the postseason.
The win virtually assures the Thunder will enter the playoffs as the Western Conference’s 2 seed. With San Antonio all but locked into the top seed, it’s not only the best-case scenario remaining, but it’s also a significant spot that would give OKC homecourt advantage in the second round and a potential matchup with these same Clippers.
“It’s a big win,” said Russell Westbrook. “Both teams were looking forward to this matchup. They were trying to see if they could make it to 2, and we were making sure we wasn’t going to drop.”
Oklahoma City moved 2 1/2 games ahead of Los Angeles with four left to play. To claim second place, the Clippers would now need to win their final three, and the Thunder would have to go 2-2 the rest of the way. It’s an unlikely result given the Thunder’s relatively easy remaining schedule. Oklahoma City hosts New Orleans on Friday before traveling to Indiana on Sunday and wrapping up the regular season with a road game against the Pelicans and the finale coming at home against Detroit.
The Clippers won two of the season’s first three meetings, giving the impression that they were simply a bad matchup for the Thunder. And in some ways, that might still be the case. Jamal Crawford, a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year who has been a pest for the Thunder with a 24.7-point average in three games against OKC this year, missed the game, his fifth straight, with a calf injury.
But with Oklahoma City playing with its full complement of players for just the second time since Christmas, the Thunder once again showed how powerful it can be.
The Thunder led by as many as 17 points and controlled the game from the opening period until a fourth-quarter rally by the Clippers closed the gap and put the outcome in doubt. Oklahoma City led 89-73 with 10 minutes remaining but watched its lead shrink to as small as one point twice in the final five minutes.
“They’re a very good basketball team, and they were going to make a run,” Brooks said. “I like the fact that we weathered the storm through our defense. We didn’t make shots during that tough stretch when they came back. But our defense did a good job.”
A few timely hustle plays and one huge shot didn’t hurt.
Blake Griffin, who had been sensational all game, missed two free throws and a chance to tie the game at 97 with 2:54 remaining. Westbrook then made him and the Clippers pay, creeping in for a powerful one-handed putback dunk to push the lead to four.
“To win big games, you’ve got to do the little things,” Westbrook said. “It’s not always going to be a big shot. It may be a big steal, a big rebound, a big block, a big box out. You never know what it may be. But we did all those things tonight.”
Clippers guard Chris Paul cut the deficit back to two on a pull-up jumper, but Kevin Durant supplied an answer with an improbable and contested stepback 3 as the shot clock wound down. He gave the Thunder a 102-97 lead with 1:32 left to play. Prior to draining that basket, Durant was just 7-for-25 from the field.
“I’m one of those guys that no matter what happens my team needs me to be aggressive late in the games,” Durant said. “They need me to shoot the ball and make the right play. So they trust me to take those shots. I’m going to keep shooting no matter what. I could be 0-for-100 and it’s the end of the game but I’m going to let it fly and not going to care if I miss. That’s a part of my growth. I’ve missed so many of those shots late in games, but I’ve learned from them. And when the opportunity’s there I just try to take advantage of it. And tonight I was able to hit one.”
A 3-pointer by Clippers guard Darren Collison again trimmed the deficit to two, but Durant was fouled on a drive and made both foul shots to bump the lead back to four. Paul split a pair of foul shots at the other end, providing the Thunder with a chance to slam the door inside the final 30 seconds.
Ibaka missed a baseline jumper, but Westbrook soared in to secure the offensive rebound. He was fouled and made one of two at the line to put the Thunder ahead, 105-101 with 15.2 seconds remaining.
“I try to do whatever it is to help us win,” Westbrook said. “I seen all night they were just kind of watching, and I was just waiting on my time to go to the glass because they’re an aggressive team in transition. So I wasn’t trying to go to the glass today. They lead the league in offense. I just tried to find the right time to do it.”
Westbrook scored a team-high 30 points with 11 rebounds and six assists. He made 12 of 24 shots in 33 minutes and helped hold Paul in check for much of the night.
Paul’s biggest flurry came in the fourth quarter, when he scored nine points and hit back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the period to ignite the Clippers’ come back. He finished with 25 points on 8-for-17 shooting with five rebounds and eight assists.
Durant scored 27 points on 26 shots, and Ibaka added 15 points, seven rebounds, four blocked shots and a critical late contest on J.J. Redick’s 3-point try that could have again brought the Clippers within one inside the final 11 seconds. Ibaka’s presence forced Redick into coming up well short on his attempt.
“We just simply played hard,” Durant said. “It’s no schemes. It’s no techniques. We just made the championship type of play, which is rebounding the basketball, Serge (Ibaka) contesting a shot. That’s what wins you games. And where we’re trying to go, that’s what you have to do to win the big games.”
After a hard-nosed road win late Wednesday night, the Thunder’s road looks like it’ll be a little bit less bumpy.