Not a soul on Oklahoma City’s side would dare confess to it before the game.
But the fact remained.
The Thunder needed a win Wednesday in the worse way. Not because wins have been in short supply this season, but because quality wins against quality opponents have been non-existent, calling into question how good this revamped Thunder team really is in the early part of this season.
“This is our 12th game,” Kevin Durant rebutted 90 minutes prior to tip. “It’s November.”
For once, the Thunder didn’t play like it.
Facing the red hot Los Angeles Clippers, the Thunder strung together one of its best performances yet and watched it result in an encouraging 117-111 overtime victory before a raucous sellout crowd of 18,203 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It was like a playoff game…in November,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
It wasn’t a beauty, and the Clippers did everything possible to make it tough, but the Thunder finally notched its second win against a team with a winning record. This one moved the Thunder to 9-3 and came over a Clippers squad that rode into town on a league-best six-game winning streak, with a sparkling 8-2 record and the NBA’s last unblemished road record at 3-0.
The Thunder’s previous eight wins had come against opponents with a combined 26-44 record, a 0.371 winning percentage. OKC’s lone win against a team that currently sports a winning record came Sunday against now 6-5 Golden State.
Other conference leaders, like the Clippers for instance, have displayed early dominance by securing solid wins against the likes of San Antonio (twice), Miami, Memphis and the Lakers.
On Wednesday, the Thunder sent its first message, overcame 19 turnovers and an off shooting night from Kevin Durant, who after the final buzzer finally fessed up to the Thunder needing a signature win.
“(Kendrick Perkins) said before we’re 0-2 against the top teams against the West right now,” Durant said. “So it felt good to finally get one of those wins. We can move on now.”
A smart defensive scheme sparked the Thunder and led to OKC shutting down Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who scored just nine points on 2-for-14 shooting. Brooks started the game with defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha assigned to Paul and moved Russell Westbrook over to lesser threat Willie Green. That one wrinkle set the tone, as Paul started 0-for-7 before making his first field goal with 3:19 remaining in the third quarter.
His last bucket came on a too-little-too-late layup with 11.9 seconds remaining in overtime.
Sefolosha’s height made it hard for Paul to see over him, while his length and relentless effort against Paul thwarted the Clippers’ preferred pick-and-roll game.
“Thabo does a good job,” Brooks said. “Thabo’s one of those guys where he just stays with the basketball. He just keeps pursuing. Screens don’t bother him. He makes that decision that you’re not going to screen me and he’s going to fight through every pick. And he does a good job of staying in front of the basketball.”
Durant finished with a game-high 35 points, largely due to his 19-for-21 accuracy at the foul line, precision that made up for a 7-for-19 shooting night.
Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, added 23 points. Six of those came in overtime as Westbrook and Durant combined to provide all 15 of OKC’s points in the extra period.
Serge Ibaka added 15 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots before fouling out in 36 minutes, and Kevin Martin scored 20 points to lead a bench unit that played its best ball of the year in the nick of time against the league’s highest scoring bench.
“That was a hard-fought basketball game,” Brooks said. “I thought both teams really laid it on the line.”
After leading by as many as 10 in the opening period, the Thunder took a 26-22 lead into the second quarter thanks again to pinpoint passing and precise shooting. Oklahoma City had eight assists on 11 made field goals and shot 57.9 percent from the field.
Durant and Westbrook carried the load, combining for 13 points and seven assists in the quarter. Westbrook had five of his game-high tying nine assists in the period.
By halftime, the Thunder had extended its lead to 59-49. Martin poured in 13 points in the period, and Ibaka hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from straight away to supply the 10-point margin going into intermission.
Paul scored just one point in the first half — that lone point coming on a technical foul shot with 54.4 seconds remaining in the half. Late in the second quarter, Clippers forward Matt Barnes, who started in place of an injured Caron Butler, had three times as many shots as Paul, outshooting his point guard nine to three.
The Thunder took a 76-69 lead into the final period, but watched the Clippers’ reserves cut the lead to three behind a 6-2 spurt that pumped life into L.A within the first 1 1/2 minutes. From there, the Clippers slowly carved into the Thunder’s lead and stole momentum before ultimately tying the game at 102-all.
Oklahoma City had a shot to take the lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation, but Westbrook missed a leaner in the lane and Paul misfired on an off-balanced, foul-line jumper that was well defended by Westbrook just before the regulation buzzer.
“It’s a tough loss,” Paul said. “I think the most frustrating part is that we had the opportunity to win it.”
The Thunder wanted, and needed, it more.