LOS ANGELES - To be the champion you have to beat the champion.
Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers can't beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
For the third time this season, and the second time at Staples Center, the Thunder beat the Clippers to keep them at arm's length in the Western Conference.
With an opportunity to leap frog ahead of the Thunder into second place in the standings, the Clippers could not overcome a sluggish beginning in a 108-104 loss at sold out Staples Center on Sunday.
Instead of moving ahead of the Thunder, the Clippers remain in third place in the conference, 1.5 games behind the Thunder.
Kevin Durant scored 35 points and Russell Westbrook added 29, including a 17-foot shot that put the Thunder up 106-102 with 26.8 seconds remaining.
"It was a good win, a good road win for us," said Westbook. "It was definitely a physical game in a playoff atmosphere, so it was a good win."
Chris Paul had 26 points and led a furious Clippers comeback in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't enough.
Blake Griffin added 20 points before fouling out late in the game, and Jamal Crawford also had 20.
A slow start buried the Clippers in a 19-point hole in the first half, as Paul and his teammates struggled to get going.
The Thunder, meantime, had no such problems as Durant scored 20 first-half points and Westbrook added 17 as Oklahoma City led 54-41 at the half.
"They came out a little more aggressive early," Paul said. "They were getting to the free throw line, doing whatever they wanted."
The Clippers' struggles continued early in the third quarter, as the Thunder rolled to a 19-point lead before the Clippers began mounting a comeback.
With Paul and Griffin finally getting untracked, the Clippers closed to within 82-73 heading to the fourth quarter. The surge continued in the final period as the Clippers got the lead down to two points.
"We took care of the ball and played better defense," Griffin said. "We switched to a zone there for a while and kind of made them hesitate a little. That's what got us back in the game."
But each time the Clippers got close, the Thunder had an answer, including Westbrook's steal and dunk with just over three minutes remaining to put Oklahoma City up 97-90.
Matt Barnes responded with a three-pointer, but the Thunder came right back with a Serge Ibaka dunk to go back up 99-93.
Once again Barnes hit a three to make it 99-96 with 1:52 remaining.
That was followed by a flagrant foul on Ibaka when he hit Griffin in the groin area. The officials looked at a replay and opted not to throw Ibaka out. But the flagrant stood and Griffin made one of two free throws to cut it to 99-97 with the Clippers maintaining possession of the ball.
Crawford then hit a three to put the Clippers up 100-99 with 1:29 left.
It added up to a seven-point Clippers possession that gave them the lead.
But Westbrook came right back, charging the lane for an easy bucket to put the Thunder up 101-100.
Soon thereafter, Ibaka scored over Griffin, fouling Griffin out in the process. After Ibaka hit the free throw, the Thunder led 104-100.
Ibaka had 16 points for the Thunder.
"For us we just wanted to come out here and bounce back from a tough loss in Denver," Durant said. "Two tough teams, playing hard all night; we respect them and they respect us."
Notes: A chippy game got ugly late in the fourth quarter when Ibaka slammed Griffin in the groin area as both player fought for position under the basket. Griffin and the Clippers were a bit surprised Ibaka wasn't ejected. "I was surprised," Griffin said...The Thunder simply chalked the chippiness up to two good teams jockeying for playoff position. "There's no question it was a physical game," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Both teams competed at a high level of intensity. It was a playoff atmosphere. This is a great place to play, the building is great. Both teams were physical."...The Clippers were alarmed by their 20 turnovers, specifically the 15 first half turnovers. "That's bogus," Paul said. "That's crazy, that's not like us. We usually don't have (15) turnovers for the whole game and we had (15) in the first half. That's kind of embarrassing."