LOS ANGELES — When Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the rest of their Thunder teammates showed up at Staples Center, they were supposed to find a fellow conference heavyweight, a formidable foe many expect to challenge for the NBA crown every bit as much as Oklahoma City.
What the Thunder found instead was a Los Angeles Clippers team unexpectedly lacking its best player, a player so pivotal his absence eliminated a sizable chunk of the luster from the league's two best teams locking horns.
Of course, the show went on, and even without Chris Paul, the Thunder treated the Clippers very much like a championship contender and took a 109-97 win on Tuesday night.
With the win, the Thunder bumped its league-best record to 33-9. The Clippers, who own the league's second best record, dropped to 32-11.
The third and final meeting between the two teams will be back here on March 3, a game currently scheduled as part of ABC's Sunday showcase.
After winning the first game against the Clippers in overtime on Nov. 21, the Thunder now owns any potential tiebreaker that would be needed to establish seeding if the teams finish tied.
Kevin Durant scored a game-high 32 points with seven rebounds and seven assists to lead the Thunder this time. Russell Westbrook added 26 points, four rebounds and six assists.
Former OU and OCS star Blake Griffin did his best to make up for Paul's absence, scoring a team-high 31 points with 11 rebounds and five assists to lead the Clippers. He made 11 of 19 shots on an array of acrobatic layups and off-balance jumpers.
But when it was announced shortly before the game that Paul would be a late scratch, it was immediately clear that the Thunder would catch a break. Paul struggled mightily in the first meeting, scoring nine points on 2-for-14 shooting. After aggravating a knee injury Monday at Golden State in an equally unspectacular four-point effort, Paul was held out Tuesday.
Replacing Paul was third-year guard Eric Bledsoe, one of the most explosive and promising young guards around. Bledsoe has had big games against the Thunder in the past, most notably a 17-point, eight-assist performance that helped produce a 15-point Clippers home win in his fifth career game. Bledsoe struggled with his shot this time and scored 12 points on 16 attempts in 35 minutes.
Sensational sixth man Jamal Crawford struggled just as much and finished with 14 points on 6-for-18 shooting. He missed five of his six 3-pointers in 28 minutes.
The Thunder scored just four points in the first six minutes and appeared to be out of sorts offensively and defensively as the Clippers built an eight-point first-quarter lead. But after trailing 22-14 in the final two minutes of the opening quarter, the Thunder assembled a 21-4 run to take a 35-26 lead with 7:10 remaining in the first half.
It was the Thunder's second unit that provided the spark. After scoring just 18 points Sunday at Denver — all by Kevin Martin — the Thunder's bench produced 21 points by halftime. Martin did most of the offensive damage, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the first half. But the Thunder turned the tide with defense, led by inspired efforts by Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Liggins.
Oklahoma City led by as many as 17 after shooting 52.6 percent for the game. But Los Angeles refused to go away.
The Clippers pulled within seven with 10:12 to go in the fourth quarter, but the Thunder again created separation and effectively closed out the game with a 19-7 run over the next 5½ minutes that put the Thunder ahead 102-85. Durant scored 11 of the points during the run, draining three 3-pointers from the top of the arc and capping the spurt with a sensational driving one-handed slam.
Serge Ibaka added 17 points and nine rebounds for the Thunder, which improved to 2-1 on this six-game road trip.