OKLAHOMA CITY – The talk coming into the Western Conference semifinal series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers revolved around which team had the advantage at point guard.
Even though the Clippers’ Chris Paul is a future Hall of Famer, many saw the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook as the favorite in the matchup.
Paul cannot back down from that kind of challenge. In a tone-setting performance, he poured in 32 points to lead the Clippers past the Thunder 122-105 Monday at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Game 1 of their playoff series.
“We know this is a tough environment, a great team, the MVP Kevin Durant; we just wanted to come out and be ready,” Paul said. “I got here way before the game with our assistant coach and got up a ton of shots, and it just felt good tonight. I just tried to be the aggressor.”
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks not only has to find an answer to slow down Paul but also must figure out where his team’s defensive spirit went.
“We have to do a better job all the way around,” Brooks said. “We will get better. That’s not who were are. We have to play better defense against this team. They were feeling comfortable. We didn’t make them feel us.”
Paul shot 12-for-14 from the field and set a career high by making eight of nine from 3-point range. He also picked up 10 assists in only 28 minutes of work.
“He hit eight threes,” Westbrook said. “He wasn’t doing nothing crazy. He hit eight threes. It’s not Chris Paul versus the Thunder. It’s the Clippers versus the Thunder.”
Forward Blake Griffin added 23 points and five rebounds for Los Angeles, and guard Jamal Crawford came off the bench to post 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
Westbrook paced the Thunder with 29 points on 9-for-14 shooting. He also had four assists and six turnovers. Forward Kevin Durant knocked in 25 points, and forward Serge Ibaka added 12 points and six rebounds.
Paul came out on fire for the Clippers. With his jumpers falling from all over the court, he lit up the Thunder for 17 first-quarter points. That included going 5-for-5 from behind the arc as L.A. led 39-25.
“They score (average) 42 points in the paint, they score 21 points from the free throw line, they score 20 points from the tough two area and 25 points from the three,” Brooks said. “So you have to do them all. In order to beat this team, you have to stop all those areas. If you don’t, you’re going to have trouble beating them.”
While the Clippers were getting everything in the flow of the offense and extra passing, the Thunder were mired trying to play one-on-one basketball.
The only reason the Clippers’ lead didn’t grow larger than the 24-points margin they established late in the second period was the hustle Westbrook showed.
Yet, the Clippers still led 69-52 at halftime.
“I don’t think I’ve seen him this aggressive,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Paul. “We needed a tone-setter. Turning it around that quickly, I think he felt he needed to set the tone.”
Nothing the Thunder tried on defense worked in the second half. Instead of settling for jump shots, Paul was able to drive to the rim for uncontested layups. The Clippers pushed their lead to 27 points in the third quarter and to 29 points in the fourth.
“They got loose on some stuff and made some shots,” Durant said. “But we do have to get more physical a little bit more. We just have to get better. But we’re confident.”
NOTES: Even though the NBA has not announced its league MVP for 2014, Oklahoma City F Kevin Durant has already started to receive well wishes. That includes one from last season’s winner. “Much respect to him and he deserves it,” Miami F LeBron James said. “He had a big-time MVP season.” James has claimed the MVP title four out of past five seasons. … Los Angeles F Hedo Turkoglu is not expected to see playing time in Oklahoma City due to an injured back. “They say he’s day-to-day,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t know what that actually means. Just watching him move, he’s not going to play in either of the first two games, that’s for sure.” … After not playing the last two games of the first round, Oklahoma City G Thabo Sefolosha was inserted back into the starting lineup in place of F Caron Butler. “I thought Caron did a good job, obviously,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s just totally different style teams. Thabo’s strength is defense and J.J. Redick’s strength is first-quarter scoring. He’s like the Energizer bunny. He never stops moving.” … Brooks had high praise for the way Rivers handled the Donald Sterling saga. “Doc has handled that as well as any coach in the league that can handle a tough situation,” Brooks said. “He not only represented the Los Angeles Clippers well, but he represented the other 29 teams well. We’re proud of what he did and what the players did and what they stood for. They’ve done a good job of starting that healing process and moving on.” … Rivers wasn’t ready to buy into the America’s Team label yet. “I don’t buy into that,” Rivers said. “It’s all nice and good. If we are, that’s great. I think you have to earn that title. But I don’t think some of the teams who are called America’s Team have earned that title. We won’t go there, being a Bears fan.”
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