With the way the first two games had gone, it was kind of hard to get a sense for Game 3. The Clippers smoked the Thunder in Game 1, then OKC returned the favor in Game 2. So as the series transitioned to Los Angeles, a lot was up in the air.
For the Thunder, the objective was clear. Win at least once, and get back to Game 5 with the series tied. Taking Game 3 would obviously be better because it puts a check in the box right away, and presents the opportunity to get greedy.
And as the game headed to the fourth quarter, the Clippers led 90-86 and had stats on stats on their side. They were 35-0 at home this season when leading after three quarters, and the Thunder were 0-4 in Game 3s when the series was tied 1-1. After Blake Griffin forced in a layup with 6:16 to put the Clippers up 100-99, they added Lawler’s Law to it too. A trifecta of superstition on their side.
But not even the forces of the statistical universe can stop the Thunder when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are operating with the kind of control they had tonight. Durant: 36 points on 14-24, eight rebounds and six assists. Westbrook: 23 points on 7-14, eight rebounds and 13 assists. And in the two biggest spots of the game, it was those two making critical shots. First, it was Westbrook knocking down a straightaway 3 as a busted possession ticked down with 2:09 left to put OKC up 111-107. After a stop (and a great defensive rebound by Reggie Jackson), Durant caught Chris Paul on a switch and hit an absurd wrong-footed turnaround dagger with 1:23 left to put the Thunder up six.
A couple missed free throws kept things moderately interesting, but Durant and Westbrook weren’t letting this thing slip. Starting with Game 6 against Memphis, those two have been an absolute nightmare, playing under control and with a different kind of poise and freedom. Even in the Game 1 loss, they were mostly terrific, at least offensively, having their way consistently.
But maybe the biggest positive is that alongside the Thunder’s superduo were large performances from Serge Ibaka, Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson. Durant and Westbrook combined for 59. Those other three combined for 48. Ibaka had 20 on 9-10 shooting, Butler popped in 14 which included three 3s and Jackson found his tempo attacking the basket adding 14 on 5-8 shooting. When the Thunder strike that kind of balance, they’re maybe the most difficult team to contain in the league. Not only are you managing two of the most gifted, unstoppable players in the league, but now you’re contending with three other pieces that can hurt you.
Westbrook and Durant hit those two big shots, but Butler dialed in back-to-back 3s that put the Thunder up midway through the fourth, then Ibaka finished a difficult layup set up by Westbrook, and then crammed home an offensive rebound. With the way the Thunder were rolling offensively, the go-to late set was a high screen-and-roll with Ibaka and Westbrook, which put an incredible amount of pressure on the Clippers. First, Westbrook could attack off the roll because the Clippers were forced to help hard on Ibaka’s roll or pop. And with that hard roll from Ibaka, it left options for Westbrook to drop to a strongside Durant, or fire to the weakside corner where Butler had burned the Clippers a few times. They were really just helpless. The Thunder had them scrambled, and it was simply a matter of making the good shots that were created from crisp, well-spaced offense.
Another thing that needs mentioning: Scott Brooks coached himself a ballgame. Just perfect lineup choices. He nailed the fourth quarter with the smallball lineup, and rolled the dice a bit going with KD for the final 12 minutes. No minutes for Fisher or Perk in the fourth, which allowed the Thunder to space and create with ease. When NBATV puts on the playoff playback thing this weekend, watch it just to appreciate how splendidly the Thunder spaced the floor. That room allowed Westbrook room to iso attack at will — and you can’t guard him 1-on-1 — or find Durant on the move or in a post-up. The Thunder’s offense was initiating high above the 3-point line, which created this nice pocket from the top of the key to the restricted area. DeAndre Jordan was routinely caught in no man’s land trying to figure out if he needed to help the paint or stay on his man (who was Butler, most of the time). The Clippers were a mess with their rotations and there was space all over for Ibaka at the elbows. We’ve all spent a lot of time griping about Thunder offense the past few weeks, but as they’ve shredded the Clippers here lately, it’s pretty obvious that getting away from the Grizzlies has been a pretty good solution.
Which leads me to this: It was really kind of a weird game, I thought. The Clippers led through a lot of it, even holding a four-point lead going into the fourth. But with the way the Thunder going, I felt like they were just playing better. It kind of had the feel of a regular season game in which the Thunder had a great rhythm and flow, and just eventually wore down the other team because they had the two best players on the floor. The Thunder were getting much easier scores, while the Clippers had more difficulty finding consistent buckets. But that’s the luxury of Durant and Westbrook. There’s always so much talk about so-called “easy baskets,” something of which that doesn’t exist in the sense those talking buffoons think they do. Though Westbrook and Durant can provide something close to them, because they’re that talented. Give them the space and the time to operate, and they’ll kill you possession by possession.
Now the Thunder are playing with some house money, much in the same way the Clippers did in Game 2. But I can tell you this: The Thunder aren’t approaching this as satisfied whatsoever. Their goal heading to LA was to obviously make sure of a split, but this is the type of team that doesn’t operate on satisfaction. They understand the circumstances now. Win Game 4, and you’re back home in Game 5 with a chance to finish it. The idea for Game 4 is to play like you lost Game 3. Find that desperation. Run like you’re being chased. It’s that simple.
- Another note on the smallball: The issue for the Thunder is Durant defending DeAndre Jordan, who obviously isn’t an offensive threat to back KD down, but can hurt OKC on the offensive boards. But Jordan only pulled in one offensive rebound on Durant, meaning the Thunder had a clear lineup advantage. That could be a significant develop going forward in this series. The Thunder used the lineup briefly in Game 1 to try and spark a comeback, but tonight in crunchtime, it left the Clippers mismatched and tugged Jordan away from the basket on the defensive end.
- I’ve really liked the way the Thunder have defended the Clippers’ pick-and-roll the last two games. They’ve stopped switching most the high ball screens, and have just had their on-ball guard fight over the top of the screen and trail on the hip of the ball handler. The Clipper bigs rarely ever pick-and-pop, so OKC’s bigs are staying on the ball handler as the trailing guard recovers, and the backline big then steps up to take the roll man, eliminating LA’s lob opportunities. The Thunder are using three to defend two, but can get away with it because of their length and athleticism. It’s a pretty solid pick-and-roll plan.
- Incredibly underrated aspect of the game was Ibaka playing really well with fouls. Brooks wisely touched on that, and it’s true: Ibaka a couple seasons ago picks up a silly early third foul and has to sit extended minutes. But even with five fouls, Ibaka played the final four minutes defending Blake Griffin.
- KD was asked about his speech a few different times postgame, about if he thinks has been a catalyst for the way the Thunder have played. Look, reporters: I know it’s a nice angle to shoot for, but Durant gave pretty much the most selfless, humble speech you could give, so if you’re asking him to take credit for said speech sparking this turnaround, I’m thinking he’s not going to bite.
- Just 17 3-point attempts for the Thunder. Really nice restraint. The Thunder can punish you from three places: midrange, at the rim and at the free throw line. And that’s where they got their shots tonight.
- The point guard matchup between CP3 and Westbrook has just been tremendous. Neither can really guard the other, though Paul definitely seems to have more issue with Westbrook than the other way around.
- I don’t know how much Doc Rivers can really play Darren Collison in this series. He can’t defend Westbrook or Jackson at all. Westbrook backs him down, Jackson takes him off the bounce.
- Since it’s the playoffs, someone might make a deal out of Westbrook and Ibaka’s brief argument late in the fourth but let me tell you, those two are ALWAYS barking at each other. Westbrook goes after Ibaka hard on missed defensive assignments, and Ibaka always chats back.
- Just something I feel like writing down: How good is Kevin Durant? I mean, really. He should win an MVP one day for being this good.
- Was it just me or did the crowd seem dead quiet for most of the game? Sounded like a regular season game.
- Caron Butler doing precisely what he was picked up to do — knock down big postseason shots.
- CP3 and KD don’t seem to like each other much.
- The Thunder’s fourth quarter: 11-18 shooting, 4-6 from 3, 32 points and allowed just 22. That’s big time.
- Jamal Crawford: 20 points but on 6-18 shooting. His last two games he’s just 8-31. It kind of feels like he’s the Clippers barometer.
- Steven Adams with 18 excellent minutes. He pulled in nine rebounds (four offensive), with four points and two blocks. I thought he had a chance to be a series X-factor, and he’s played huge so far. I feel like people need to be reminded of the fact he’s a 20-year-old rookie making a massive postseason contribution. Do you guys realize how good this guy could be soon?
- How about Blake Griffin’s flop on Durant late in the fourth? Is there any other 260-pound man that can be sent flying quite like Griffin? How are officials constantly fooled by this? Durant isn’t exactly someone known for brute strength, and yet he clips Griffin and sends him rocketing backwards like he just got tagged with a taser.
- However, Scott Foster then made up for it calling DeAndre Jordan for a way soft push in the back on Durant.
- Another thing on Griffin, who I feel like I should state I like very much: He fails to realize that throwing your face and head into every move you do, sometimes means it gets hit. The play he bloodied his nose, he swung his face around right into Ibaka’s stationary elbow. Griffin literally plays with his face, swinging it around like a mace.
- High praise from Jeff Van Gundy of Durant’s speech saying it was the best sports speech since Lou Gehrig.
- KD had some moves tonight that just make you shake your head. That cross on Dudley at full speed. Woo wee.
- The way officials have called the postseason, it’s basically to the point where you shouldn’t contest a jumpshooter. With players kicking out their legs and flailing all over, you’re at the mercy of an official almost every time you try and challenge.
- OKC dominated the glass again, 44-33. They’ve outrebounded the Clippers in all three games so far.
- Matt Barnes got tagged for a bunch of ticky tack stuff off the ball, fouls that Tony Allen was never called for.
- Would’ve been pretty cool for Westbrook to get another triple-double.
Next up: Game 4 on Sunday