Here are five takeaways from Oklahoma City’s 118-112 victory over the Clippers in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night at Staples Center:
1. Serge Ibaka gave the Thunder the boost it needed to take control of the series. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to get their points; everybody knows that. But the Thunder often needs another scorer to win tough games and found it in Ibaka, who made an uncanny nine of 10 shots to finish with 20 points. His biggest basket came with four minutes left in the game when he snatched a rebound away from Blake Griffin and went up for a dunk that gave Oklahoma City a 106-101 lead.
2. Caron Butler … did what? The Oklahoma City reserve small forward, who was somehow languishing on the bench for the NBA-worst Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, made a pair of crucial three-pointers in the fourth quarter to help his team take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Butler broke a 96-96 tie with a three-pointer and then gave the Thunder a 102-100 lead with another three-pointer from the corner that was uncontested. The Clippers never led again. Butler finished with 14 points, making three of five three-pointers against his former team.
3. The Eric Bledsoe trade suddenly didn’t look so good. Concerns about paying Bledsoe what he will command starting next season aside, this was one time the Clippers might have regretted unloading the speedy point guard. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook repeatedly made a mockery of the Clippers’ defense and the two players the Clippers acquired as part of the Bledsoe trade—J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley—made a combined two of nine shots. Oh, and Bledsoe’s replacement as the Clippers’ backup point guard, Darren Collison, missed all four of his shots and went scoreless in 10 unproductive minutes.
4. Doc Rivers has 24 hours to fix his team’s defense … or else. The Clippers coach is known as a defensive guru, but his team has had trouble stopping the Thunder throughout a series in which it has given up an average of 111.7 points per game. Oklahoma City made 55.7% of its shots in Game 3 and scored 48 points in the paint. The Clippers’ shoddy defense allowed it to lose a game in which Griffin scored 34 points and Chris Paul had 21 points and 16 assists without a turnover.
5. The Clippers must win Game 4 … or else. History is already working against the Clippers, who have never rallied to win a playoff series when trailing two games to one. It’s even more unimaginable to consider them winning if they drop the next game, which would require them to win three consecutive games—including Games 5 and 7 in Oklahoma City—to advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time in history. Perhaps someone should remind Rivers of this quote he gave the day before the Clippers left for training camp: “The corny part is we need to come together as a group all the time, not only when things are good,” Rivers said at the time. “I think that’s the biggest adjustment this team has to make. They have to become that; they have to become a team.” A victory in Game 4 would be a great exercise in team-building.