By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES – If Serge Ibaka had picked up two quick fouls a couple years ago, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was saying Friday night of his fifth-year power forward, emotions would have been ricocheting off the walls when Ibaka checked back in, moments Brooks recalled as “dicey.” This time, in his team’s biggest game of the season, when pressure could have become a tipping point, a focused Ibaka lasted the final 5:08 with five fouls.
Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, had what Brooks called “control and command of the game,” as if 23 points, 13 assists against two turnovers, and eight rebounds wasn’t impact enough. And on a night when the opponent did not provide extra opportunities, Oklahoma City was so stable on offense that it didn’t need them, shooting 55.7 percent and scoring 118 points despite the Clippers committing just six turnovers.
But Westbrook wasn’t the only one showing control and command. The Thunder won Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals 118-112 for a 2-1 series lead behind 36 points from Kevin Durant and another formidable performance from Westbrook, but mostly thanks to what OKC did not do.
Quite the opposite. The Thunder shot 61.1 percent in the fourth quarter and pushed through L.A., all while not committing a single turnover in the same time. They either trailed or led by no more than six points until the final 22.7 seconds and were undaunted. Fourth quarter, on the road, tight game, physical, someone cranking the volume nob on fans inside Staples Center, home-court advantage gone and bigger problems not far behind, and they maintained.
“I thought we did a good job of staying focused, staying on the task at hand, and that is to win the basketball game,” Brooks said. “We’ve had a lot of years of experience. We added a few players along the way. But I thought our guys did a good job of maintaining. Defensively in the fourth quarter, we stepped up and made them take a lot of tough shots.”
Playing with a champions’ composure, the Thunder became the first team all season to beat the Clippers after L.A. took a lead into the fourth quarter. Countering the tension with poise, Oklahoma City looked like a roster that had been to the Finals.
“Sticking together,” Westbrook said. “Great teams stick together. I thought we did a great job of having each other’s back, staying close with each other regardless of what was going on. Just playing through it all.”
Control and command.
“We’ve grown a lot in that area,” Durant said. “There’s times when we can definitely grow from our mistakes. But we’ve grown leaps and bounds from where we were before.”
Ibaka finished with 20 points in 29 minutes while making 9 of 10 shots and, in the words of Westbrook, “he did a great job of being focused. Like coach mentioned earlier, just staying focused on what the task at hand is. Sometimes you’re going to have early fouls, get in early foul trouble. You got to find a way to put your imprint on a game. I thought he did a good job with Blake, making him take some tough shots and knocking down some shots as well.”
Ibaka did such a good job with Blake Griffin, actually, that Ibaka got Griffin to give himself a bloody nose. The Clippers All-Star was pivoting inside with the ball, trying to create some space to get off a clean shot, contact being delivered and absorbed. Finally, he slammed into one of Ibaka’s arms.
Blood spilled, the crowd was outraged, but it was a good no-call by the referees. Just another tense moment in a game filled with them. Ibaka handled the situation well. He stayed active despite the foul trouble. All the Thunder stayed composed.
This was not control and command of the best entire series, but it was Oklahoma City in a good place, playing with a fortitude down the stretch and earning the 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series because of what it did, just more because of what it did not do.