LOS ANGELES — With 19 minutes left, the Thunder’s five-point deficit suddenly looked a lot more daunting.
At the same time a struggling Russell Westbrook was called for his third foul, a limping Serge Ibaka headed for the locker room. Calf injury. He wouldn’t return.
Already needing any kind of spark to close the Clippers out, the Thunder now needed interior help from some unlikely places.
Nineteen minutes later, OKC had both, getting the closeout win 104-98 on Thursday night because it got the help, from both the emerging Steven Adams and the there-when-you-need-him Nick Collison.
In a breakout postseason run, Adams had his best performance. The 20-year-old rookie played a career-high 40 minutes. And in it, he had his first career playoff double-double, going for 10 important points and 11 crucial rebounds. The Thunder was 17 points better than the Clippers with him on the court. He played the final 21 minutes of the game.
And he got a large interior boost from Collison. Largely unused for most of the series, Collison became crucial once Ibaka went down.
The 10-year-pro didn’t play a second in the first half. But in the game’s final 19 minutes, he played 16 of them. His stat-line wasn’t eye-popping, but his impact was.
Collison came in and set important screens. He bullied the Clippers in the post. He had two crafty assists. And he may have hit one of the game’s most important shots.
Already with momentum toward the end of the third quarter, following a Reggie Jackson transition slam that cut the Clipper lead to three, Nick Collison spotted up in the corner on the quarter’s final possession.
Kevin Durant drove the lane, spotted his veteran and fired an on-point pass. Collison buried the corner three he has been tirelessly working on after every practice. It tied the game at 72. The Thunder would never again trail.
“Nick hit a big shot going into that fourth quarter,” Durant said.
And OKC’s stars took it from there. Durant was a monster, finishing with 39 points and 16 rebounds, and Russell Westbrook arrived right in time, making important plays in the fourth.
But with the Thunder’s third wheel back in the locker room, a 20-year-old rookie and a 10-year veteran were called upon. Using completely different tactics, both produced their best performances of the playoffs in the most crucial moment.