Clippers point guard Chris Paul fights for a loose ball with Thunder power… (Christina House / For the…)
The swift, below-the-belt blow delivered to Blake Griffin by Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka pushed the Clippers forward, helping them culminate a rally that turned what was once a 19-point deficit into a one-point lead with an unusual seven-point surge.
But in the end, the flagrant 1 foul Ibaka committed against Griffin late in the game Sunday didn't deter the Thunder, which kept its composure with the game in the balance and pulled out a tense 108-104 victory over the Clippers at Staples Center.
The defeat meant the Clippers lost the season series to the Thunder, 3-0, and dropped them 11/2 games behind Oklahoma City for the second-best record in the Western Conference.
Perhaps of more pressing concern, the Clippers (43-19), though two games ahead of fourth-place Memphis (39-19), are tied with the Grizzlies in the loss column. The teams play each other twice more.
The Thunder got by the Clippers on Sunday primarily because of 35 points, nine rebounds and four assists from Kevin Durant and 29 points, 10 assists and six rebounds from Russell Westbrook.
"We never give up," said Chris Paul, who had 26 points, eight assists and four steals. "Most teams are like that. They are just going to keep fighting. We came up short. It seemed like every time something happened, we just couldn't get over the hump."
Thanks to Ibaka, the Clippers took the lead.
Matt Barnes made a three-pointer to cut the Thunder's lead to 99-96.
Replays showed that during the play, Ibaka first grabbed Griffin's right arm and then struck him in the groin area, the Clippers All-Star forward crumpling to the floor with 1 minute 52 seconds left.
Griffin was awarded two free throws, one of which he missed.
The Clippers also got the ball out of bounds, leading to a three-pointer by Jamal Crawford (20 points) for a 100-99 Clippers lead with 1:30 left.
After the game, Griffin was asked if he had provoked Ibaka.
"Did I hit him first in the [groin]?" Griffin said. "No.
"It's basketball. We play basketball. It happens. Sometimes you take it a little too far, but no, I wasn't provoking him or anything like that."
Griffin said "I kinda was" surprised Ibaka wasn't called for a flagrant 2 foul and ejected from the game.
Ibaka said he didn't intentionally hit Griffin below the belt.
"I just wanted to try to get position and he has his hands on me, so I'm going to try to sweep [my hand] to get in position to go get a rebound," Ibaka said. "But I was not really ready to try to hit him like that. We were fighting in the paint to get position for a rebound. It was about positioning."
After the Clippers scored those seven consecutive points, Westbrook scored on a drive.
But it was Ibaka who put the victory away for the Thunder. He got a pass down low and pump-faked Griffin, who fouled out on the play, committing his sixth personal.
Ibaka scored and made the free throw for a 104-100 lead, and the Clippers never caught up.
"For us, it's always about getting better and not taking steps backward," Crawford said. "I don't feel like we took a step backward, but we could have taken a major step forward. So for us, they won the series and you tip your hat to them. But we like our chances going forward."