The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in a fantastic game 3, 118-112. In a game that saw the lead change hands what felt like every other possession, the Thunder used a dominant 4th quarter to chase down the Clippers and wrestle back home court advantage. The game was a taut affair throughout, with neither team ever achieving a double-digit lead, and often it was within 2 possessions. Each side saw their stars rise to the challenge, and in the end the Thunder's show runners had a little bit more in the tank to finish the game.
The Thunder rediscovered themselves in game 2, a game after they had the fear put into them. They followed up game 2 with a great showing in game 3. It was a positive sign to see that the Thunder could go into a hostile environment against an emotionally charged Clippers team and hang with them throughout. OKC accomplished this by shooting 55.7% from the floor and getting a huge performance out of their big 3.
Kevin Durant led the scoring for the night with 36 points on 14-24 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds and 6 assists. He was accompanied by his running mate Russell Westbrook, who complimented Durant perfectly and went toe to toe with Chris Paul. Westbrook finished with 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists against only 2 turnovers. Rounding out the trio was Serge Ibaka, who finished with 20 points on a near-perfect 9-10 shooting from the floor.
The Clippers were led by Blake Griffin, who broke out of his slump by scoring 34 points to go along with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks. Chris Paul finished with 21 points, 16 assists, 3 steals, and zero turnovers.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
In order for a game to qualify as a fully realized entertaining experience (I made this up just now):
1) Your team's gotta win (check)
2) Your team has to play well for most of the affair (check)
3) The opposing team has to play well too (check)
4) It's gotta get a little bloody (Blake Griffin's nose - check)
5) The ending should be in doubt until the very end (check)
What made this game so fulfilling was the fact that it was a road game and we had statistics such as these floating about:
Daunting stat put up by the ESPN broadcast: Including the postseason, the Clippers are 35-0 this season when leading after three quarters.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 10, 2014
But that statistic turned into this:
Two things that gave tonight: Clippers were 35-0 at home when leading after three and the Thunder were 0-4 in Game 3s when tied 1-1.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 10, 2014
People tended to scoff at me when I claimed that the Clippers' defense would be a Thunder opportunity, but I believe that in this game you could see the problems that the Clips have. While they are extremely athletic and have the ability to defend one-on-one, if there is any advantage lying with the other team, LA doesn't seem to possess a keen sense of how to stop it. In the last series, the Grizzlies, by both design and necessity, would triple-team Durant and dare other guys to make shots, and they had a specific defensive design in place to make those traps happen. We don't see anything like that with this Clippers team, and I sense that once OKC figured that out, they realized that they don't need to rush things but can deliberately get the right guys the ball in the right situations and execute down the stretch.
The end result was a 32-22 4th quarter finale where OKC overcame that 4-point deficit and clamped down on defense at the very end.
Satisfying. One game, yes. But still satisfying.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
The Thunder were completely unprepared in game 1 and were shell-shocked by the speed of the game and the Clippers' shot-making ability. After digesting that shark sandwich (along with watching Kevin Durant receive the MVP award and make grown men and grandmas cry everywhere with his acceptance speech), the Thunder realized that the Clippers cannot dictate the pace of the game the way the Grizzlies can, and as a result slowed it down just enough to a) make sure Durant gets the ball in the right situations; and b) it better enables Westbrook to play the point at an elite level.
How elite? Check this out.
Ever since his charitably 'shaky' game 5 against the Grizzlies (which, by the way, resulted in a triple-double), Westbrook has been off the charts in his ability to both produce points as well as run the team. He has now gone 3 games against Paul, and after CP3's scorching game 1, Westbrook has arguably gotten the better of him in the last 2.
What is even better is how Westbrook has done it. I don't know if I've seen a better stretch from Westbrook in terms of controlling the game and keeping his emotions in the proper place. He only put up shots 14 timesoverall and shooting 50% in the process, but one stretch was classic Westbrook, as he scored the Thunder's final 9 points of the 1st half in a span of 85 seconds.
He worked his butt off to set up his teammates time and time again, most notably Durant throughout the 2nd half. What happened next was that Westbrook, scoring maniac, became a bit of a forgotten measure. He seemed like he was playing passive, and then suddenly, dracarys.
And if we thought Westbrook wasn't quite yet done, he concluded his 3rd act by burying a dagger 3-pointer late in the 4th that put the Thunder up by 4 points.
Kevin Durant, league MVP and quiet 36 point scorer, took the hint and followed up Westbrook's shot with this thing of beauty:
This game 3 clearly demonstrated that as long as the Thunder are patient on offense and space themselves properly, there is nobody on the court that can step up and slow down either Westbrook or Durant.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The Thunder role players stepped up, and they did it on the road after playing quietly in OKC. Here's a brief run-down:
1) Serge Ibaka - Despite shooting nearly 70% from the floor, Ibaka seems to often get forgotten in the offense. Not so tonight. He was a near-perfect 9-10 from the floor and repeatedly spotted up for jumpers at the left elbow that he shot and made with confidence. His overall game was a bit uneven due to foul trouble, but that was in large part because he was battling Griffin on the other end. When the game was on the line this time, the Thunder did not hesitate to look for Ibaka, as he delivered a huge contested layup off of a Westbrook feed inside 5 minutes of the 4th. He followed up that play with an offensive rebound that he put back for a dunk, thus helping conclude a night where OKC outrebounded the Clippers by 11.
2) Reggie Jackson - Jackson was very quiet in the first two games as the Thunder worked to figure out how they were going to maximize him. In game 2 he really wasn't necessary, but we postulated here that with newly minted 6th man of the year Jamal Crawford always threatening to heat up like a microwave, Jackson's offense would be necessary.
Jackson responded with his best game of the series, finishing with 14 points on 5-8 shooting, with most points coming at the rim. What I loved most about Jackson's performance is how OKC trusted him with the game on the line. I am reminded of a saying I once heard uttered - when a man puts in the work, he earns the right to fail. Well, Jackson put in the work against Memphis, playing the game of his life in Game 4. In this game 3, with the game on the line and under 30 seconds to play with OKC clinging to a 6 point lead and the shot clock winding down, the Thunder put the ball not in Durant or Westbrook's hands but Jackson's. On top of that, they put it in his hands 60 feet away from the rim off a sideline in-bounds pass and he had under 10 seconds to make a play. He attacked the entire Clippers defense and was fouled attempting to throw down a vicious slam. His subsequent 2 free throws nearly ended the game.
I write 'nearly' because when OKC trusted him again, Jackson drew the foul with his team up 6 and missed both free throws. The breath of life they gave the Clippers was quickly snuffed out again though, and once again, OKC trusted Jackson with the ball with under 10 seconds to play. This final time, he delivered with 2 free throws to ice the game.
3) Caron Butler - Butler continued to be a good floor spacer for the Thunder, producing 14 points on the night. However, the way he did it is worth mentioning. With the Thunder trailing by 4 entering the 4th quarter, Butler stepped up and hit three corner 3-pointers, each time being set up by brilliant cross-court assists by Jackson and Durant, and each time the 3-pointer gave OKC the lead. Big time shot-making from Tuff Juice. Dog says 'hi.'
4) Steven Adams - Adams is going to be in a battle throughout this series, but I love the fact that Scott Brooks is trusting him against one of the best front lines in the game. Adams played 18 minutes on the night, and while Griffin did a number on him in several situations (ouch!) he finished with 9 rebounds and 2 blocks, including this one, which helped lead to one of Butler's 3-pointers mentioned above.
Adams also did this to Chris Paul, and I have the same reaction to this play that I sometimes do to my 2 year old daughter when she casually visits violence against her older sister. In other words, "Bad! Bad!...wow, nice right hook."
In total, the Thunder bench outscored the Clippers' bench 34-28, and Ibaka did a great job mitigating Griffin's monster night. Well done.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder are back in the driver's seat, but must not get complacent because they're going to face a Clippers team that knows it has to elevate its defensive game in order to stay in this series.
As we have harped upon for days now, this series comes down to the Thunder's ability to defend the Clippers' middle pick-and-roll sets as well as their 3-point shooters. Griffin did have a huge game, but his frontcourt mate DeAndre Jordan was held to a relatively quiet 10 points and 11 rebounds. Furthermore, the Clips' 3-point shooting remains inconsistent. Aside from Paul's dynamite opening game, they have struggled from beyond the arc, and in game 3 only shot 7-26. It is not that they aren't getting open shots anymore; they are. The difference is that they now know that if they get open, a Thunder defender is going to close on them hard and fast, and sometimes that is just enough to upset a shooter's rhythm. The most dangerous shooters, Crawford and Redick, shot a combined 2-9 from beyond the arc.
Defense first. Westbrook in control. Durant, Duranting. This is a good formula for things to come. Let them come.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 23 points, 13 assists, 8 rebounds
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 20 points on 9-10 shooting, 6 rebounds
Thunder Blunder: none
Thunder Plunderer: Blake Griffin, bloody nose, no foul
Next game: Game 4 on Sunday, May 11 at 2:30 PM CDT