CLIPPERS FIND POTENTIAL DEFENSIVE WEAPON DURING COMEBACK

LOS ANGELES – The Clippers might have found something.

Despite losing for the third time in as many games to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit Sunday afternoon behind a 3-2 zone defense that slowed the league’s highest scoring team and nearly led to an improbable comeback.

Of course, it fell short when Oklahoma City scored nine of the final 13 points and returned home with a 108-104 win. But in the process the Clippers discovered a newfound, unrefined weapon.

“I definitely think it’s something I can use in the future,” Chris Paul said of the zone. It worked there for us up until those last two possessions…That defense helped us. That’s what helped us get back in the game.”

The Clippers held the Thunder to 10 points in a span of 9:58 between the third and fourth quarter, mostly with Lamar Odom and Blake Griffin anchoring the back end of the zone with a combination of Paul, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford swarming the perimeter.

They deflected passes, trapped ball handlers along the sideline and forced Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company shoot over the top of them. They closed out possessions as well, out-rebounding the Thunder, 14-7, in the fourth quarter.

“We made [the comeback] in the second half by changing the detail and the defense,” Odom said. “We just gave a second effort. We rebounded the basketball. We didn’t give up easy baskets.”

It was a far cry from earlier in the game when the Thunder drew five first-quarter fouls on Griffin and Odom and took advantage of a season-high 16 first-half turnovers by the Clippers.

“We took care of the ball and played better defense,” Griffin said of the second half. “We switched to a zone there for a while that kind of made them hesitate a little. That’s what got us back in the game, getting stops and we got out in transition and hit a few buckets.”

Head coach Vinny Del Negro said it was a matter of the team scrambling better. The Clippers pressured the Thunder into tougher shots, including a stretch of eight consecutive field goal attempts from beyond 18 feet. The Thunder made just two of those attempts, a 3-pointer by Kevin Martin and a 20-footer by Thabo Sefolosha. Oklahoma City also committed a pair of turnovers in that stretch, both resulting in Clippers baskets.

Barnes poked the ball away from backup point guard Reggie Jackson, leading to a layup on the other end and Paul buried a floater after a shot-clock violation on the Thunder.

The teams played at a near stalemate over the next five minutes, but the Clippers took their first lead on seven-point possession capped by a 3-pointer from straightaway by Crawford. The defense, though, failed in the final 1:52, as Westbrook accounted for a layup and baseline jumper and assisted on a 3-point play by Serge Ibaka.

“We were down one [after Westbrook’s layup] and then they called the offensive foul on the put back, then they came right back down and got a 3-point play,” Paul said. “They scored; Russ (Westbrook) got a layup the first time and then they got a 3-point play [by Ibaka]. So that kind of hurt us.”

Still, moving forward, the Clippers feel as though the zone defense that helped them get back in Sunday’s game may be a useful part of the arsenal.

“I think we saw some things that could work down the line,” Crawford said.

Paul added: “I think we’ve got to keep working on it. It’s something that can be a weapon for us.”

And it very well could, especially if the Clippers meet the Thunder again come April or May.