Thunder

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When Oklahoma City was brushed aside by the Miami Heat in five games during last season’s NBA Finals, one had the feeling the Thunder were determined to return.

With 23 games left on Oklahoma City’s schedule after last Sunday’s 108-104 triumph over the Clippers at Staples Center, the Thunder (43-16) look like a team that’s about to make another deep run in the playoffs, but this time finish the job.

Small forward Kevin Durant lit up the Clippers (43-19) to the tune of a game-best 35 points and also pulled down nine rebounds and handed out four assists.

Durant, who had 20 points at the intermission, does everything with such ease and is having his best all-around campaign.

“We weathered the storm and came away with a big win on the road,’’ said Durant, a 6-foot-9, 215-pounder who was named Rookie of the Year in 2008, and is a four-time All-Star. “We moved the ball, but they threw that zone [in the second half]up against us. It confused us.”

Many regard Durant the best pure shooter in the NBA. Right now, he’s hitting 50.9 percent from the field, 42.2 percent at the three-point line, and 90.7 percent from the free-throw stripe.

The Clippers turned the ball over 21 times, with 16 at the half, while the Thunder had 15 miscues.

Afterward reporter Heather Cox asked Durant, who is averaging 28.6 points and 7.8 rebounds, if Oklahoma City Head Coach Scott Brooks has given him good advice.

Durant, who played one season at the University of Texas and scored 25.8 points per game with 11.1 caroms, was firm. “I have to be aggressive in the fourth quarter,’’ he said, “even if my shot isn’t falling.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, who played two seasons at UCLA, poured in 17 of his 29 points in the opening half.

Westbrook’s hoop with 26.7 seconds remaining pushed the Thunder’s lead to 106-102, and helped seal the win.

Durant’s layup with 7:08 showing in the first quarter gave Oklahoma City a 13-4 lead, however, Clippers’ point guard Chris Paul (26 points, eight assists and six rebounds) converted two free throws that cut the advantage to 21-17 with 2:51 left, but the Thunder (47.5 percent shooting) led 27-20 after one quarter.

Thunder reserve guard Kevin Martin (10 points) drilled a three-pointer that made it 32-24 with 8:54 showing in the second quarter, but the Clippers (46.3 percent) outscored Oklahoma City 10-8, before Westbrook (10 assists and six boards) hit one of two charity shots that made it 41-34.

Durant’s pull-up three-pointer gave the Thunder a 48-37 edge with 2:40 left, and Oklahoma City went into the locker room ahead, 54-41.

Oklahoma City led 68-51 when center Serge Ibaka (16 points) popped a trey with 6:14 showing in the third quarter, but the Clippers closed the gap to 77-63 with 3:10 left.

On cue, Paul scored, was fouled and added a free throw as the third quarter ended and the Clippers were within 82-73.

When reserve forward Matt Barnes (eight points) scored with 7:25 left, the Clippers were down 87-81, and after reserve guard Jamal Crawford (20 points) hit a three-pointer, the Clippers pulled ahead 100-99 as 1:29 remained.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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