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Player grades: Thunder clinch crucial tiebreaker with 129-107 win over Clippers

OKLAHOMA CITY — Running the break, Jalen Williams received the bounce pass from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and jammed it in for the one-handed dunk that sent the energetic crowd into a frenzy. It’s only fitting that these two punctuated a pivotal victory.

The Oklahoma City Thunder collected an important 129-107 win over the LA Clippers in the first game back from the All-Star break. In the win, OKC clinched the tiebreaker over LA.

“We amped (the physicality) up pretty good at the end of the first, end of the second,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said on the win. “And continued that in the second half. I thought we were really good physically and played a good game.”

The Thunder got off to a 35-33 lead following the first quarter. Entering halftime, OKC held a close 61-59 lead. The opening two quarters lived up to the hype of a heavyweight fight between two of the top teams in the league.

A 35-point third quarter by the Thunder helped them create a 12-point quarter advantage over the Clippers to enter the final frame holding a 96-82 lead with all the momentum.

The Thunder started off the fourth quarter on a 7-2 run to give them a 19-point lead with a little over nine minutes left in the contest. The closest LA would get the rest of the way was within 12 points. Clippers head coach Ty Lue surprisingly pulled the plug with a little under four minutes to go in a 16-point deficit.

OKC’s lead ballooned to a game-high 22 points and the starters eventually left the court with the active crowd — who created a playoff-esque atmosphere with a stellar showing — applauding their efforts.

The Thunder shot 56% from the field and went a sizzling 17-of-35 (48.6%) from 3. All five Thunder starters scored double-digit points with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 31 points leading the way.

Jalen Williams scored 18 points, with 12 of them coming in the fourth quarter. The 22-year-old continues to command fourth quarters for OKC.

Meanwhile, the Clippers shot 45% from the field and 12-of-32 (37.5%) from 3. After starting hot, LA lost its luster as the game progressed. OKC put the defensive clamps down in the decisive third quarter, limiting the Clippers to 23 points.

The Thunder blocked seven shots in the 12-minute frame and limited the Clippers to 31% shooting in the decisive quarter.

“There’s a lot of randomness coming out of the All-Star break, so I thought it was great mental toughness by us,” Daigneault said about the third quarter. “… I thought we did a great job coming out of the break and readying ourselves for competition and diving in.

“I don’t think we saw the best version of them tonight. I wouldn’t read too much into the game outside of a good, mental test for our team that we passed.”

Kawhi Leonard led the way for LA with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Outside of him, the other two Clippers stars struggled as Paul George had 14 points on 6-of-16 shooting and James Harden had 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting.

“We limited mistakes that yielded great shots for them,” Daigneault said. “They’re just too good of a team to give great shots to. I thought we were able to limit that in the second half… We forced a good team to earn what they got tonight.”

As mentioned, this was a massive game for future standings implications. Both the Thunder and Clippers have been neck and neck in the standings and that will likely continue the rest of the way as OKC holds a 1.5-game lead.

If tiebreakers are necessary, the Thunder own it over the Clippers, which could prove pivotal with home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Let’s look at Thunder player grades.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: A-plus

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder needed a big night from Gilgeous-Alexander and he delivered with another ho-hum efficient 30-point outing.

In 35 minutes, Gilgeous-Alexander had 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting, eight assists and four rebounds. He shot 3-of-6 from 3 and went 4-of-6 from the free-throw line.

The All-Star starter got to his spots with ease and hit on several tightly contested mid-range jumpers. The footwork continues to be mesmerizing as he had a couple of notable Clippers looking foolish. He even brought out the outside shot tonight and made a trio of triples. LA had no answer for the MVP candidate.

Gilgeous-Alexander set the tone early with 11 points in the first quarter. He totaled 19 points in the first half as he headlined OKC’s two-point halftime lead. He had a monster third quarter of nine points to balloon the Thunder’s lead to double digits.

Sharing a floor with several future Hall-of-Famers, Gilgeous-Alexander looked the best out there in arguably the most important game of the season thus far for OKC.

Jalen Williams: A-minus

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

It was a quiet first three frames for Williams until he exploded in the fourth quarter to wield the Thunder to the finish line.

In 36 minutes, Williams had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, six assists and four rebounds. He shot 2-of-4 from 3 and the free-throw line.

The second-year wing was held to six points in the first three quarters before he scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the final frame in what’s become his signature quarter this season.

The 22-year-old’s animated jam with a little over a minute left capped off a monster win for OKC as he hyped the crowd up before checking out for the final time. Williams has blossomed into a potent scorer for the Thunder.

“He’s got great system skills on both ends of the floor,” Daigneault said on Williams. “Offensively, he moves, he cuts, he moves the ball. I thought he found some great passes tonight… Defensively, great intensity, great skills.”

Chet Holmgren: A-minus

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

After having several days off for the first time in a long time, Holmgren looked refreshed in the Thunder’s signature win over the Clippers.

In 33 minutes, Holmgren had 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocks. He shot 3-of-6 from 3.

The 21-year-old had no problem driving to the basket and absorbing contact to collect his points. The outside shot also continues to be a weapon for him.

Despite their size, LA struggled to score inside. It was limited to 42 points inside of the paint on 44% shooting. The seven-foot rookie gets accredited for a lot of that with his elite rim-contesting abilities.

This was highlighted early in the contest when George tried to posterize Holmgren and epically failed as the seven-foot rookie held his ground and contested the shot.

OKC will need this version of Holmgren down the stretch as it looks like the extended break did him some good after a physically-taxing last couple of months.

Lu Dort: A

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

This was one of Dort’s better games of the season as he contributed at a high level on both sides of the court. He hit on his open looks and played stout defense.

In 31 minutes, Dort had 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, three rebounds and two blocks. He shot 3-of-6 from 3.

On the other end, he limited Harden to a quiet 17 points and forced him out of rhythm for the entire night by hounding him through screens. He previewed the type of night the former MVP would suffer through when he stripped him on the opening LA possession for an easy layup.

These are the types of games OKC will need from Dort in the playoffs. If he can hit on his open looks and make the opposition’s best perimeter players earn their points, then he’ll play a key role in the Thunder’s postseason success.

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Story originally appeared on Thunder Wire