Clippers lose to Thunder as their struggles continue against top teams in the West

The Oklahoma City Thunder presented a significant opportunity for the Clippers to prove they belong at the top of the uber-competitive Western Conference.

Instead, they missed another opportunity to show they can beat one of the NBA’s top teams.

The Clippers’ 129-107 loss to the Thunder on Thursday night coming out of the All-Star break marked their second straight to a team ahead of them in the standings, following their 121-100 loss to the first-place Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 12.

Oklahoma City (38-17), which viewed the game as a measuring stick against top teams, secured the regular-season tiebreaker between the clubs.

“I t was a big game as far as just the tiebreaker situation,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “But they’ve been playing great all year. I think it’s been times where we played really well. It’s been times we won games because we won with talent.

“And, so, like I said, I don’t think it’s barometer game. I think the barometer game is when we get to the playoffs and see what happens then. And, so, for us, we know we have to get a lot better, especially cleaning up stuff at the defensive end, being better with that, understanding the coverages and being better with our schemes at times. And so we got to do a better job with that.”

The game got away from the Clippers in the third quarter when they made just 29.6% of their shots. The Thunder shot a sizzling 70% from the field and 71.4% from three-point range over the same stretch as the Clippers were outscored 35-23. A 13-3 run by the Thunder to cap the quarter put the Clippers in a 14-point hole.

“In that third quarter, they just started running faster, playing harder,” said Kawhi Leonard, who led the Clippers with 20 points on nine-for-12 shooting. “We turned over the ball and they got out in transition and just cooked us up.”

When their deficit grew to 19 points in the fourth, the Clippers (36-18) made one last push. But with 3:53 left and the Clippers down 115-99, Lue pulled four starters — Leonard, Paul George, Ivica Zubac and James Harden — aware that they have a game Friday night in Memphis.

“I mean, you can cut it to four or six and still lose the game and that’s wasted minutes to me,” Lue said. “So, once they scored, went up 16 with four and a half, it was just like ‘it’s over,’ so get ready for tomorrow. We come out of a game healthy and get ready for Memphis tomorrow.”

The Clippers also came out of this game knowing their defense needs improvement.

The Thunder had all five starters score in double figures, led by All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 31 points.

His 12-for-19 shooting from the field and three-for-six shooting from three-point range helped Oklahoma City shoot 55.6% from the field and 48.6% from three-point range.

“For the most part they were in rhythm,” said George, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists. “We couldn’t get them out of rhythm. But I thought Shai did a good job of just being in attack mode. All of them … all of them were just in attack mode. And, I don’t think we did anything. We didn’t defend the three-point line and we didn’t defend the paint as well as we needed to in the second half.”

The Clippers remained third in the West, but they are 2½ games behind conference leader Minnesota and 1½ games behind second-place Oklahoma, and Denver (37-19) is right behind them.

“Obviously we want to finish with the best seed possible that we can finish with,” George said. “But I think more so, we just need to be playing the right way towards the end of the year.”

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