It's fitting, I suppose, that it took coming back to Los Angeles for all of the stars in this series to come out. After a few sporadic outburts from the faces of these franchises, all of the incredible, unique talents that each team has to offer were on display in Game 3.
And unfortunately for the Clippers, in a game that was all about dueling stars, Oklahoma City's third wheel made his first real appearance of the post-season, and brilliant performances by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin ended up going to waste because of a simple numbers game: three stars to two.
You can point to Caron Butler and his trio of three-pointers or maybe Reggie Jackson's aggressiveness going to the basket as the difference in this game, but it was Ibaka that really separated these two teams down the stretch. All night long Ibaka burned the Clipper defense, which was constantly collapsing to stop Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, by acting as a release valve at the elbows. When you play the Thunder, you have to pick your poison, and pretty much every team is going to concede that Ibaka mid-range jumper in order to contain the more damaging dribble penetration by Westbrook and Durant.
But on this night, Ibaka was just as lethal as Oklahoma City's dynamic duo. Even as he dealt with foul trouble throughout the night, Ibaka was able to stay on the floor enough to punish the Clippers' defense. After making his first seven shot attempts of the game from the mid-range, Ibaka capped off his night with a tremendous finish at the rim around Griffin on a pick-and-roll followed by a ferocious throwdown after straight taking the ball away from Griffin on the offensive glass with about four minutes to go.
Even though Durant and Westbrook combined for an efficient 59 points, that is still a point total that the Clippers can survive. But when Ibaka throws in 20 and the Thunder get 28 from Jackson and Butler, the Clippers don't have much of a chance, particularly when the Clippers don't get a third star performance from one of their role players.
Griffin was as good as he's been all post-season, putting up 34 points on a combination of silky outside shooting and smart, physical moves on the block to neutralize OKC's longer defenders and Paul delivered 21 points and 16 assists with zero turnovers, essentially playing perfect ball up until the final minutes of the game when I thought he launched an ill-advised three rather than running the offense. But that supplemental performance from J.J. Redick or Jamal Crawford was lacking on this night, which gave the Clippers a lack of balance and made life tougher on their stars as the Thunder defense loaded up to stop their pick-and-roll attack.
Matt Barnes had 14 points, but he was just 1-of-6 from three, and his struggles in particular really hurt LAC's spacing. Redick was 0-of-5 up until he hit a meaningless shot in the final minute, but I still think Doc Rivers made a mistake to go with Crawford over him for as long as he did, especially since Crawford was a mess offensively himself. He had a couple of nice crossovers and drives to the basket, but he also missed a key lay-up and was just 1-of-5 from deep. I'd rather have Redick in the game, which allows the Clippers to keep up a motion-based offense, than Crawford is he is going to shoot 6-of-18 from the floor and reduce the offense to a lot of isolation stuff with Paul off the ball.
And it was somewhat fitting that Crawford's defense was the main culprit on what was the deciding play of the game. The possession was a bit of a mess from the get go, but when Crawford came up with Ibaka, who was looking to set a high screen for Westbrook with just under two minutes to go, Crawford sagged back from the screen, inviting Westbrook to pull-up for a wideopen three that he drilled to put the Thunder up four. The shot clock was already down to five by the time Westbrook got around the screen, and he is almost always going to launch it from deep late in the clock, but Crawford played back to make sure he didn't get blown by and Westbrook made him pay. At the very least, I'd expect Redick to be a little more aware in that situation.
After storming out of the gates in Oklahoma City with one of the finer offensive displays we have seen all season, the Clippers have taken a step backwards offensively in terms of ball movement and scoring distribution since while the Thunder are trending in the opposite direction. And after shooting the lights from three in Game 1 (15-of-29, 52%), Los Angeles has regressed far past the mean and made just 16 of their 53 long distance attempts (30%) over the past two games. Paul and Griffin were fabulous in this game and the Clippers had a chance with two minutes to go because of their brilliance, but with nobody else stepping up, it was the Thunder that looked like the more complete basketball team on Friday night.
And that's not something the Clippers can let continue if they want to make it to the next round.