Thunder-Clippers Preview

The Associated Press

There's little argument the Los Angeles Clippers are serious championship contenders, and their recent surge - especially the dominance during it - shows their potential to accomplish that goal.

The Oklahoma City Thunder may need to improve their game on the road if they plan to make another run to the NBA Finals.

Los Angeles seeks a fifth consecutive victory while dealing Oklahoma City a fourth straight road loss in Sunday's matchup of division leaders.

The Clippers have been on a roll since Chris Paul returned from a bruised right kneecap and have won eight of their last nine games, with the victories coming by an average of 15.5 points.

Paul finished with 15 assists and Jamal Crawford scored a game-high 24 points as Los Angeles (43-18) turned it on late in a 105-89 win at Cleveland on Friday. Despite their recent success - the only loss during the run was to West-leading San Antonio on Feb. 21 - coach Vinny Del Negro knows it will only get tougher moving forward for the Pacific Division leaders.

"There are no easy games. I don't care who you're playing," Del Negro said.

Crawford led the surge off the bench Friday, as the reserves scored at least 50 points for the 10th time. The Clippers are averaging an NBA-best 40.6 points off the bench.

"When the second unit plays like that, we take the game of this basketball team to another level," reserve Ronny Turiaf told the team's official website. "We have so many finishers that can finish at the basket and so many guys who can shoot 3s or score from the mid-range. I think we can do things at a very high level."

Oklahoma City, though, hasn't seemed too threatened.

Kevin Durant scored 35 points and Russell Westbrook added 23 as the Northwest Division-leading Thunder (42-16) beat the Clippers 117-111 in overtime Nov. 21, as Paul shot only 2 of 14 and finished with nine points.

Durant then had 32 points to help overcome 31 and 11 rebounds from Blake Griffin in a 109-97 road win over the Paul-less Clippers on Jan. 22. Since that victory, though, Oklahoma City has dropped six of eight away from home, including Friday's 105-103 loss at Denver as Ty Lawson scored with less than one second remaining.

Coach Scott Brooks still was pleased with the effort after his team's three-game winning streak was snapped.

"We always seem to somehow, someway, fight back and give ourselves a chance to win," Brooks said. "They made one more play than us. That's just the way it is. We have to figure it out going into the next game and play a little bit better."

Westbrook finished with a season-high 38 points and is averaging 30.2 while hitting 52.9 percent from 3-point range over his last six.

"He's a passionate player," Brooks said. "Russell never leaves the game saying, 'I wish I would have played harder'. When you have a team full of guys like that like we do, and they do too, you live with the results."

The Thunder are just 16-12 on the road and 5-8 versus teams with a record currently above .500, though Durant leads the NBA at 30.5 points per game away from home.

Oklahoma City leads the league in scoring, averaging 106.7 points, but the Clippers rank fourth in defense, allowing only 93.8 per game.

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