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Thunder end the year “on a high note”, crunching the Clippers 117-112 in season-finale

Headed into Sunday, there appeared to be some level of clarity in terms of where both squads stood leading into play. Los Angeles was expected to roll out their full-fledged lineup for a playoff confidence booster while Oklahoma City was looked upon to put the cherry on top of their lottery aspirations through gutting their roster — and losing the contest. These assumptions were thrown out of the window just an hour before tip-off time as both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were pulled from the competition. The Thunder removed Darius Bazley, Lu Dort, and Kenrich Williams as an attempted counter, but it stayed just that — an attempt. Oklahoma City’s losses were far less detrimental than Los Angeles’ resulting in the Thunder capping their season off with a 117-112 win at the ‘Peake. The Clippers successfully evaded a round one meeting with the Lakers with the loss as at 47-25 — they have latched onto the fourth seed. The Thunder’s road ended in dramatic fashion as their successful closer looks good on paper, but now with a 22-50 record — their top three lottery finish is a wash.

Sunday’s matchup yielded a stoppage before anything could materialize as Clippers center Ivica Zubac intentionally fouled his man six seconds into play, and escaped right to the bench. This early break in the action set Oklahoma City in motion, converting on their first three shots for a quickfire 7-0 lead. The Thunder’s momentum snowballed as time progressed, rolling out to hit their first 8-of-12 shots for an 18-8 lead at the midway point. Oklahoma City’s offense expanded to the three-point range in the back end of the frame as the group ended their efforts on a 5-of-9 (55.6%) effort from outside en route to a 35-26 lead. Aleksej Pokusevski shot a perfect 5-of-5 (2-of-2 3pt FG) for 13 points in the first, tapping out a flurry of pullups and a 30-foot jumper to add to his collection.

Both sides caught wind from downtown to start the second, leading to a battle of free throws and easy layups until a Yogi Ferrell three ended the streak with 5 minutes, 33 seconds to go. In the interior exchange, the Clippers generated an opening 15-4 run to shrink the game to two, keeping the Thunder at arms-length. Oklahoma City’s forte kept attacking the basket the entire way, leading to a pair of coast-to-coast Josh Hall finishes — but also leading to a stretch of instability. Los Angeles diverted to the perimeter following Ferrell’s basket, it was rocky. Names in Patrick Patterson shanked a trio of threes to headline others, but there was light at the end of the tunnel — as after a culmination of baskets, Los Angeles hit their first lead with just over two to play. Three lead changes and a tie pillaged in sunset minutes, but the Thunder imposed the final strike, weathering down a last-second layup to put Oklahoma City up 62-60.

The Thunder’s force inside set the stones for a 40-18 advantage in the paint but off a rocky 5-of-17 (29.4%) outing from distance — their attack was one-dimensional. The Clippers’ gameplan was much of the same, grappling at a 7-of-22 performance from downtown for points, but the real money-maker rested at the charity stripe. Los Angeles outshot Oklahoma City 12-5 at the line gaining a 9-point stake to make things tight. Aleksej Pokusevski and Moses Brown starred in the first half with 15 and 14 respective points while Brown peaked in a double-double with 10 rebounds. 

To start the second half, Mark Daigneault called upon Jaylen Hoard, Charlie Brown Jr., and Josh Hall to mash with Aleksej Pokusevski and Moses Brown — it had its bumps. Los Angeles went right at Oklahoma City’s makeshift lineup to the effort of an 11-5 run, pioneered by a 7-point patch from Serge Ibaka. The Thunder did a solid job at tying down the Clippers from shots, but they simply never met the same sample size. Through seven minutes, Los Angeles hoisted 22 shots (making 8) while Oklahoma City attempted only 9 tries (4-of-9 FG.) This disparity of shots slowly shrunk as the frame digested, but at its peak, it allowed for a 7 point Clippers lead, and at the entering the fourth, an 88-86 lead.

After a blank third quarter, Aleksej Pokusevski picked right where he left up reclaiming the lead off a three. Josh Hall pivoted from a __-point period with a speedy pull-up jumper and an acrobatic and-one finish to light a six-point lead after two minutes. Following a three-minute standstill, Los Angeles roped back off two threes to knot the game at 100, but after Moses Brown babied his way to a jam on the other end, the run was cut. After exchanging four-point swings the night was still tied with right under three minutes, but after Luke Kennard sank a left-baseline pullup, the Clippers set up a bucket at the two-minute warning. Josh Hall returned with an and-one layup, but the game was still staked down. In the final moments of play, Aleksej Pokusevski took over, bottling down a pair of free throws and a 27-foot three to mark the Thunder up three with 48 seconds to go. Los Angeles scrambled on the following possession, stagnating for 18 seconds before Daniel Oturu hoisted a contested 19-footer — no good. Aleksej Pokusevski attempted to stack his streak to seven off a mid-range jumper but after a miss, his right-hand man, Moses Brown cleaned it up with a putback jam — game, set, match, season.

This game was an oddity for many reasons. In the case of lineups, Mark Daigneault fizzled out guys in Theo Maledon and Isaiah Roby after 12 and 13-minute runs, instead opting to play names in Charlie Brown Jr. and Josh Hall 31 and 42 minutes. Los Angeles handled the situation far worse, tossing out Patrick Patterson for 42 minutes, while rookie Daniel Oturu, who played just 112 minutes leading into this game, posted 38 minutes. 

When you evaluate the coaching, a differing story arises. Mark Daigneault was right in the thick of this game, calling for adjustments, standing on the sidelines, and even calling a successful challenge in the third quarter. In the case of Tyronn Lue, he called almost no in-game adjustments deploying a rec-level defense where driving lanes were kept wide open, and clean looks were found at the basket near every time. This absence of strategy cost the Clippers in the end, allowing for the Thunder to record a franchise-high 78 points in the paint.

Los Angeles converted on 42-percent of tries Sunday but in navigating to the perimeter they shot a flaky 10-of-43 (23.3%) while attempting over 40-percent of shots from the region. 

Moses Brown’s season-finale was a microcosm of his G-League stint. At 7-foot-2, Brown simply overpowered the competition as with a 6-foot-8 Daniel Oturu manning the middle, his baskets with little restraint. Brown finished the night nearing a triple-double recording 24 points (12-of-17 FG), 18 rebounds (8 offensive), and a career-high 7 blocks. A lack of help defense paved the way for Brown to operate one-on-one every time he touched the basketball, and with his long strides — a plethora of open cuts to the basket.  

Aleksej Pokusevski concluded the night with a career-high 29 points (10-of-19 FG) to pair with 8 rebounds. Poku got in sync early with his hot opener, and the gas never wore off. Poku used a slew of stepback jumpers to finish his card 6-of-9 from downtown including the game-shifting three that ultimately determined the game. 

Josh Hall entered game 72 with little to no scouting report. The forward has bounced between injuries all season long, in both the NBA and G-League, making his run futile, and with a garbage time role — a blank slate. Hall made a case for his future as the two-way forward bottled 25 points (11-of-21 FG) and 10 rebounds in 42 minutes. Hall had a rough time converting from three (1-of-6) but his work around the basket led to a variety of acrobatic finishes and drives.

Oklahoma City’s regular-season closer set the team off on a “high note”, but the net loss in harvesting a top-four pick (between their own and Houston’s) slipped 12-percent while their own selection lost out on a near 7-percent slate for top four and a 2.5-percent movement in hitting the first pick. Being in a two-way tie for fourth, odds still are very much in their favor, but their slide from three to four may leave some imprints come lottery night. As it stands, Oklahoma City will look to propel from this season’s 22-50 record as their rebuild is just getting started.

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