LOS ANGELES — When two Western Conference contenders clashed Wednesday night, they couldn't make it to halftime without things getting chippy, tempers flaring and an all-out brawl nearly breaking out.
Never mind that this is only the third week of the NBA season.
That didn't stop the Thunder and Clippers from both delivering their best shots in a showdown that could have established the victor as a cut above.
But the Clippers' eventual 111-103 win was tainted by what appeared to most as an obvious overreaction by the officiating crew, a pivotal one that quickly turned the tide and colored the outcome of the game.
An altercation just before halftime left the Thunder without starting power forward Serge Ibaka for the second half and the Clippers without reserve guard Matt Barnes.
The two were ejected with 6.2 seconds remaining in the first half after Ibaka and Blake Griffin got tangled up following a Clippers offensive rebound. Both took exception to the contact. Griffin tried to throw Ibaka's arm off him, and Ibaka retaliated by shoving Griffin. Barnes then rushed in and shoved Ibaka, inciting a series of subsequent shoves and shouting matches as players were separated.
Griffin, whose initial fling of Ibaka started the altercation, was slapped only with a technical foul.
At that juncture, Ibaka had scored 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting.
Barnes was scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting.
"It changes things up," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the ejections. "But I believe in all the guys in the locker room. That's why they work hard every day. There's going to be times when your number gets called, probably when you don't expect it. And that was tonight."
For the Thunder, though, Ibaka's dismissal was another blow to an already short-handed front line. The Thunder embarked on this three-game trip without starting center Kendrick Perkins, who remained with his family following the death of his grandfather this week. Rookie center Steven Adams started in place of Perkins and struggled defending both the low post and the pick and roll.
"But there's no excuse," Brooks said. "They beat us."
Rather than blaming the officials, Brooks pointed to his team's poor rebounding and ball security. The Thunder finished with 22 turnovers, 15 coming in the second half, and allowed 18 offensive rebounds, which led to 11 more shot attempts for the Clippers and 14 second-chance points.
"We put ourselves in a bad position not getting a shot off up and down the floor," said Thunder guard Russell Westbrook "Turning the ball over hurt."
But there was no denying or understating how much Ibaka's ejection contributed. The altercation wasted what was by far the best half of basketball OKC has assembled so far this season.
The Thunder led 62-53 at the break, scoring a season high for points in the first half thanks to beautiful team basketball that saw OKC dish 19 assists on 24 field goals in the opening 24 minutes.
But with its hottest hand and biggest help to Westbrook and Kevin Durant confined to the locker room, the Thunder saw its offense vanish. OKC mustered just 16 third-quarter points after a series of turnovers (seven in the period) and missed shots (5-for-17) derailed all rhythm.
"The third quarter, the ball got sticky and we wasn't playing with any force," Durant said. "That's how they got back in the game and took over. We just have to be better."
With the Thunder out of sync, Los Angeles pounced. The Clippers outscored OKC 30-16 in the third quarter and went on to build a 13-point lead before the Thunder's late rally fell short. The closest the Thunder came was 100-96 with 3:25 remaining.
Ibaka said he wasn't given an explanation for why he was tossed from the game. Multiple replays showed him clenching his right fist but never throwing a punch.
"It was a physical game and anything can happen," Ibaka said when asked about the altercation. "But the referee made the decision so I will take it. I didn't see the video after that so I will try to make sure and watch it...I was really disappointed. I will learn from my mistake, and all I can do now is be focused about tomorrow's game."
Barnes didn't speak to reporters after the game.
"Obviously, you don't want anybody to get thrown out," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. "I don't want Ibaka to get thrown out, and I absolutely do not want Matt Barnes to get thrown out. The only way I think Matt can possibly be thrown out in that situation is if they say he was the instigator of the whole thing. I didn't see it that way. Clearly, I thought Ibaka grabbed Blake and swung him around, and I thought that was what instigated everything."
Regardless of whose actions started the scrum, the critical decision to remove players ultimately overshadowed an enticing early-season matchup between two teams that are battling for conference supremacy.
"You could see that both teams had a lot of interest in winning this game," Rivers said. "I like games like this. They're nice. They're fun to be in. You do learn a little bit about your team."
But on this night, in this test, the short-handed Thunder never had an opportunity to gauge what it truly has.
"If we would have won the game, you guys would have said 'It's too early to crown them," Durant said. "We lost the game so it's too early to say our season is going down the drain. We got a lot more tests down the road. We lost this game to a really good team. We can't hang our heads. Our season's not over. We're 5-2. We got a game tomorrow."