|Finally, Kevin Durant and the Thunder soared in a big game. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Twenty-seven and fifty-one.
Entering their game Wednesday against the Clippers, that was the combined record of the seven teams the Thunder had beat. Only one win against a team above .500.
Their three losses? Against quality opponents -- San Antonio, Atlanta and Memphis. So the early returns on the defending Western Conference champs post-Harden was that they could beat teams they should, but weren't stepping up against top level competition. Which was a concern seeing as, you know, the Thunder have plans of playing top level competition in the postseason.
But after a thrilling 117-111 overtime win over the very good Clippers, the Thunder have a small monkey removed from their backs.
“[Kendrick Perkins] said before the game we were 0-2 against top teams in the West right now so it felt good to finally get one of those wins,” said Kevin Durant. “But we move on now. It was a collective effort from everybody on both ends and I'm glad we got the win.”
Did Wednesday's game against the Clippers mean a little more to the Thunder? They of course say no, that it's just one of 82 and that all games are big. Actually, that's almost exactly what Scott Brooks said postgame.
But there's little doubt that the Thunder wanted this one. They're winning games without James Harden, but not big games. They failed a national TV test last week against the Grizzlies -- at home -- so the Clippers presented another measuring bar kind of test.
One the Thunder finally passed.
"They're all big, all big. You've got 82 big games a year. I talk to the guys, I don't put one more than the other because then you're disrespecting your opponent," Brooks said. "It was a big win, there's no question. But we have nine big wins this season. It's not easy to win a game. There are a lot of good teams in this league. If you let up for minutes, it'll cost you a game. And we did a good job of playing for 53 minutes of basketball."
One small reveal that this one might've meant a bit more: Brooks showed some cards by sicking his defensive stopper, Thabo Sefolosha, on Chris Paul. It's a move that Brooks deployed after the Spurs took a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals, and here he broke it out in November.
The result? One of the worst statistical games of Paul's career, a horrific 2-of-14 nightmare with four turnovers.
“Just a lot of energy,” said Sefolosha of his strategy on Paul. “I know me personally, I rely a lot on the help. On the big men. And they did a great job of helping me.”
While he's modest, Sefolosha is one of the elite perimeter defenders in the league and it's no coincidence he was able to mostly stifle Paul's pick-and-roll game. He used his length exceptionally well, basically removing CP3's lean-back jumper he uses so effectively.
“We started the game on Chris with Thabo,” Brooks said. “Thabo is one of those guys that he just stays with the basketball. He just keeps pursuing. Screens don't bother him. He makes that decision that screens aren't going to bother him and he's going to fight through every pick
"I give him credit. But also, Chris Paul missed some shots tonight that he normally might make. I think it was a combination of the two.”
The Clippers are deeper than they've ever been, but it's obvious that the engine runs on Chris Paul. And he had a shot to win the game with it tied at the end of regulation. He got a switch with Russell Westbrook on him, shaking off Sefolosha, but missed a jumper short. It was that sort of night for him. Just unable to get anything going. Part credit to Sefolosha and the swarming Thunder D, part on it being a very un-CP3 kind of game.
“It's a tough loss,” said Paul. “I think the most frustrating part is that we had the opportunity to win it and regardless of what anyone says it's going to be hard for us to win a game when I play that bad. It's a tough loss because you work so hard but there's just going to be nights like that.”
When it came down to it, the Thunder probably didn't want it more, but certainly needed it more. The Clippers have validated themselves plenty in the early going this season with wins over the Spurs (twice), Heat and Lakers. We should have figured out by now that they're legit and very good.
The Thunder, while there aren't really doubts about their validity, still needed something to at least remove the unavoidable fact that they really hadn't beaten anyone that good. Possibly for themselves, but it's hard to get that worked up over things this early in the season, especially when you're winning a lot more than you're losing.
But if the losses build in these types of games, then it becomes A Thing, A Trend, A Storyline. And then it starts weighing.
The Thunder needed Wednesday's game about as much as you could need one in late November. It's not going to define anything or really make some large, grand statement. But it was the biggest game of the season so far for the Thunder, and not just because it was the current one in front of them.