Chris Paul pounded the ball on the left wing, patiently waiting while probing the defense until the perfect window opened.
When it did, the Los Angeles Clippers All-Star point guard made his move. This time, it was his patented pass, a pinpoint, sky-high toss to teammate DeAndre Jordan at the other side of the lane. As Jordan caught Paul's pass, seizing it with two hands at the top of the square, he immediately flushed a rim-rattling dunk.
It came with 2:19 left in the third quarter.
And it was the first and only lob pass of the night by a Clippers team that connects on so many alley-oop dunks it has been nicknamed “Lob City.”
Nothing demonstrated just how dominant the Thunder was defensively in its 114-91 win over the Clippers on Wednesday night quite like how Oklahoma City shut down L.A.'s dunking game.
“With Chris Paul, the pick and roll is key with him,” said forward Nick Collison. “They run so many of them, and he's able to get everybody shots and gets those guys dunks. If you can get up and not let him get into the middle of the lane, that's a big part of stopping them from what they're trying to do.”
The credit goes to Russell Westbrook.
While much of the night's focus was on the Thunder's newest point guard acquisition, veteran Derek Fisher, it was the team's All-Star point guard that set the tone and sparked the blowout.
Westbrook played perhaps his best defense not just of the season but his career. From the opening tip, he made Paul uncomfortable by gluing himself to Paul and fighting over screens. One night after allowing Utah guard Devin Harris to score 13 straight points in the third quarter, Westbrook bounced back by giving tremendous second and third efforts on every pick and roll the Clippers ran, refusing to get taken out of the play and allow one of those highlight-reel lobs.
“From a statistic point of view, Russell looks like he had just a very average game. But I thought this was one of his best all-around games,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He was guarding one of the premier point guards in the league, a guy that can manipulate the pick-and-roll game as well as anybody. And he did a very good job with that. He controlled the team and he controlled the game on both ends of the floor.”
To understand how effective the Thunder was Wednesday, you first must flash back to Jan. 30 and remember that the Clippers had eight dunks in their 112-100 runaway victory over the Thunder. Paul registered assists on five of those throw downs, carving up OKC with lob passes and bounce passes alike. This time, the Clippers had just two dunks, none coming from the human highlight himself, Blake Griffin.
“I came in and tried to defend,” Westbrook said. “Last time in L.A., they got the best of us of getting in the paint and throwing lobs and things like that. And I tried to prevent that tonight.”
One of several Thunder players who never is satisfied with his individual performance, Westbrook chided himself for not getting a single steal of all things. But everyone inside the locker room knew the impact he had just provided.
“He was really focused, and he was great for us,” Collison said. “When he can control the point of the ball, we're so much better defensively.”
The Thunder held the Clippers to 36.7 percent shooting, the first time since Feb. 23 that Oklahoma City has held an opponent to less than 40 percent shooting. Not coincidentally, that performance was against the Lakers, which was the last opponent that got the Thunder's best shot just before the All-Star break began and this current inconsistency kicked in.
“It seems like it's been a while since we've had 48 minutes of consistent defensive pressure on the basketball,” Brooks said.