LOS ANGELES — The Thunder brass likes to talk about winning games different ways. If you ever wonder what they’re talking about, remember this wild one.
The Thunder beat the Clippers 118-112 Friday night in a crucial Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. And they did it by changing tactics in the middle of the race.
After banging and banging with the Clippers for seven straight quarters, playing a physical brand of ball that makes the Clips mighty uncomfortable, the Thunder went track meet. Even with Serge Ibaka in foul trouble, Scotty Brooks ordered up a small lineup that conceded some muscle shots to Blake Griffin, but a lineup that was dang near impossible for the Clippers to cover.
Foreman Scotty’s maneuver put the ball in the hands of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the most crucial of times, and that usually is a winner for the Thunder. It was Friday night.
After the Clippers had pulled within 108-107, Westbrook, putting the fear of driving the ball into the fearless Chris Paul, instead pulled up from the top of the key and swished a cold-blooded 3-pointer that gave the Thunder a four-point lead. When Paul’s 3-pointer bounced off, the Thunder had a chance to snuff the life out of the Clippers’ hopes, which is the bat signal for Durant.
The Thunder got Durant on the wing with a matchup against Paul that he liked, and Durant swished a fallaway 20-footer that gave the Thunder a 113-107 lead with 1:23 left. And the game was effectively won.
The Thunder’s small lineup paid off earlier, too. Caron Butler shook off two straight poor games and knocked down three go-ahead 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. He had a strong game, with 14 points, particularly enjoying three foul shots in the first half when a Clipper fan was loudly riding him, saying Butler, a former Clipper, had lost his game and was not of Clip caliber.
The Thunder in that fourth quarter made 11 of 18 shots and made the Clippers blink. The inside-outside Clips made just 10 of 26 shots in the final period, despite constantly going inside to Griffin, who finished with a monster 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting.
OKC had done a masterful job of frustrating Griffin in the first two games, but Serge Ibaka got in foul trouble early, Steven Adams lost his magic and Griffin largely had his way. But Ibaka stood strong down the stretch. Griffin made six of eight shots in that final period, but the two misses were big.
And now the Thunder has back control of the series, leading 2-1. The Thunder won with Westbrook dominating at point guard, and now the Thunder has won with offensive mastery. Won by outscoring the jackrabbit Clippers 19-16 in fast-break points. Won by matching the rebounding-strong Clippers in second-chance points 16-16.
Won by sticking close, then asking its stars to win it. Durant and Westbrook complied. And now the Thunder is back in control.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.