For their first nine games of the 2014 NBA playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder won or lost based on the play of superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the team's role players pushed them over the top.
In a thrilling, back-and-forth contest at Staples Center, the Thunder outlasted the Clippers 118-112 to take a 2-1 series lead and wrest back homecourt advantage. With each team's superstars playing at extremely high levels, a few big performances from OKC's secondary players helped turn the tide. After going 35-0 this season in home games they led after three quarters, the Clippers finally fell short in one of the biggest games possible.
Both teams appeared to approach this game with the attention to detail and seriousness of purpose that a pivotal Game 3 requires. After two fairly one-sided results to open the series, this one was tight throughout. The Clippers scored the first seven points of the game, but that was the biggest margin for either team until the final 22 seconds. There were 19 lead changes and 13 ties, with the game still in serious doubt well into the fourth quarter. Based on the level of play, highlight-reel material and the closeness of the score, it's arguable this was the best game of the postseason so far.
Chris Paul rose to the occasion in one of the biggest games of his career. With 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting (including a lengthy 3-pointer to end the first half), 16 assists, three steals and zero turnovers, Paul put forth something like an ideal point guard performance, controlling the offense and finding his own scoring at all the right moments. Co-star Blake Griffin bounced back from two average scoring games to 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting and 8 of 9 from the line, providing needed balance to an offense that had succeeded from the perimeter to start the series.
Durant and Westbrook were just as good. The league's MVP went 14 of 24 from the field, doing nearly all his damage from midrange and inside for a game-high 36 points. Westbrook had yet another high-efficiency game after starting the playoffs as an unrepentant gunner, scoring 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting and adding 13 assists and eight rebounds with just two turnovers. Westbrook has seen a lot of criticism over his career for not getting teammates involved, but this game showed he can integrate all his skills into everything else the Thunder do. His individual talents were inseparable from team-wide success.
Of course, it's possible he only deferred to this extent because the Thunder's role players were so excellent. Serge Ibaka went 9 of 10 from the field for 20 points (his best total of the postseason), missing just a corner 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and making a big impact on jumpers from the left elbow. Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson were also excellent off the bench, scoring 14 points apiece on 9 of 18 from the field. It was only the second time in the postseason the Thunder had five players score in double figures. That balance makes them virtually impossible to defend, especially when Durant and Westbrook play so well.
By contrast, the Clippers' role players did not have the same sort of effect. Conventional wisdom says secondary scorers shoot better at home, but that was not the case on Friday night. Jamal Crawford scored 20 points, but it took him 18 shot attempts to get there. J.J. Redick also struggled, shooting 1 of 6 from the field and 1 of 4 from 3-point range. DeAndre Jordan did have his best statistical game of the series with 10 points and 11 rebounds, but the Clippers lacked the overall production of the Thunder.
Those contributions made the difference in the fourth quarter. With Matt Barnes face-guarding him, Kevin Durant found Butler for 3-pointers in the first 6:08 of the period to break one tie and change the lead twice. Those shots laid the groundwork for 11 straight points from Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook, turning a 102-101 lead into a 113-107 lead with 1:23 on the clock. The Clippers weren't necessarily bad over this stretch, but they did not execute as well as the Thunder. It helped that, after shooting just 2 of 11 from deep over the first three quarters, OKC went 4 of 6 in the fourth.
This game was a masterpiece, and even more remarkably so because the referees occasionally interrupted the flow of the game. With 49 fouls and five technical fouls (including two instances of double technicals), the officials did their best to get a handle on a hard-fought contest. Unfortunately, they sometimes took that desire to avoid a fight too far.
What's clear, though, is very few things will limit the intensity and quality of this series. With the exception of the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder and Clippers look like the most prepared teams in the postseason at this moment. It's a shame one will have to stop playing at the end of the series, but the basketball world can't wait to see how the last few games play out.
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