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Poised Thunder exploit Clippers defense down stretch, take 2-1 series lead

May 10, 2014, 3:15 AM EDT

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Three Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — This was playoff basketball at its most intense (certainly the most intense we’ve seen this second round, anyway). The Clippers and Thunder were battling and it was emotional, chippy, loud, and foul filled. It was a roller coaster.

It didn’t have much defense, but it was fun.

Through that storm the Thunder kept their heads about them. It’s a cliche to say the most poised team wins a close game, but it’s a cliche for a reason.

While the Clippers got frustrated with each other and chirped at officials in the fourth —all of which seemed to impact their defensive rotations and offensive shot selection, their minds elsewhere — the Thunder kept executing. OKC kept trusting players like Caron Butler to make plays (he nailed three threes in the fourth), kept trusting they would win going small, and they played with the confidence they would make the big shots when they needed to. The Clippers were the team pressing, the team still learning to win on this big a stage.

Oklahoma City won the fourth quarter 32-22 and with that become the first team to trail the Clippers after three quarters and come back to win this season, 118-112.

With the win the Thunder take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference semi-finals. Game 4 is Sunday at Staples Center and it is all but a must win for the Clippers.

When asked about the late game poise Kevin Durant talked about the journey and said this year they are way ahead of where they were in years past.

“Just from experience,” Durant said. “You grow from experience. Having been here before, it’s helped us all out. Reggie (Jackson) when Russell (Westbrook) was out, Serge playing in big games, Russell playing in big games, myself. All the way down the line.”

The other thing the Thunder were able to do is play through the physicality better.

As Doc Rivers had said pregame he wanted his team to do, the Clippers came out attacking the rim — they were not going to settle for jumpers. That’s good basketball. But with Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins hanging back, the Thunder are long and physical in the paint — and that physicality threw the Clippers off. The Clippers hit just 4-of-12 at the rim to start the game and finished 24-of-47 in the paint (51 percent).

“We didn’t finish a lot at the basket,” Rivers said. “I think they hurt us…. we’re getting to the basket. That’s what you want to do. We missed a lot of shots at the rim, wide open threes.”

Meanwhile the Thunder offense showed balance — when it’s more than just Kevin Durant (36 points) and Russell Westbrook (23 points and 13 assists, 8 rebounds) it means trouble for whomever is in the other jerseys. Friday night Serge Ibaka had 20, Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler each had 14 (Butler nailing threes in the fourth quarter to make the Clippers pay for not matching OKC’s small lineup). As a team the Thunder had an offensive rating of 123.8 and a true shooting percentage of 64.6 percent.

“Listen they played well today. They really did,” Rivers said. “I thought offensively we played good, but defensively we didn’t”

“Early I thought we allowed too many easy baskets, you know, dunks, layups” Blake Griffin said. “I think we’ve got to do a better job on the boards.”

After what has been a lackluster start to the second round of the playoffs with a lot of blowouts — and a slog of a first game Friday night between Indiana and Washington — the Clippers and Thunder put on a show. It was entertaining. It was a back and forth game with both teams surviving the run of the other — the lead never got more than 8 either way util the final minute.

The Clippers had their chances. This game was 102-101 Thunder with Chris Paul at the free throw line and five minutes left. But then CP3 missed the free throw, and then Serge Ibaka scored the next four points and quickely the Thunder seemed comfortable again. Then the Clipper made another push and it was 108-107 with two minutes left Thunder when Westbrook it a three, then on the next trip down Durant hit a ridiculous turn-around, 18-foot fade-away three over the wrong shoulder. That was the dagger.

The Clippers got 34 points out of Griffin, 21 points and 16 assists from Chris Paul, and 20 points from Jamal Crawford off the bench.

But they couldn’t just outscore the other team — that other team that has two elite scorers. The Clippers were not the defensive team they know they need to be to contend.

“We’ve been a team that regardless of how we plead the first three quarts, the first part of the fourth quarter, we relied on stops down the stretch,” Paul said. “Tonight we didn’t do that.”

They have until Sunday to figure out how to get those stops or they will be free to set golf tee times very soon.

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