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."