Thunder-Clippers Game 3: Good, better, best

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

The Thunder rose above the Clippers in Game 3. (USATSI)
The Thunder rose above the Clippers in Game 3. (USATSI)

More postseason coverage: Playoff schedule, results | Latest news, notes

Oklahoma City Thunder 118, Los Angeles Clippers 112: Thunder lead series 2-1

In Game 1, the Thunder weren't prepared to play at all, mentally. They were caught off guard and passive.

In Game 2, the Clippers were winded and overwhelmed by the Thunder response; to an extent, they seemed content to get the split in OKC.

In Game 3, we got the best both of these teams have to offer in the Western Conference semifinals. The Thunder weren't shackled by the stylistic muzzle of the Grizzlies, the Clippers weren't swooning from the emotional drain of the Donald Sterling drama. Both teams came ready to play. It wasn't a perfect game from either team, but it was a high-execution game from both teams. It was better, from both teams.

And in the match of the Clippers' better vs. the Thunder's better, the Thunder's better was better.

That's not to say this match is done, that it's checkmate, OKC. But it's an idea of the problem that the Clippers face. They can't out-talent the Thunder, because as they have learned in the past two games, they can play well and still lose to this team. Game 3 saw Chris Paul with another brilliant all-around performance, 21 points on 16 shots and 16 assists. Blake Griffin erupted for 34 points, eight rebounds and four assists, finally figuring out how to attack Serge Ibaka.

The Thunder can have their star players be wild, untameable fires, Westbrook and Durant blazing across the court with athleticism and skill. But they can also engage the rest of the team and play defense. The Clippers only seem to be able to function on one level. They can grind out wins vs. the Warriors, one possession at a time, they can light up defenses with their shooters like Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick, or they can tear them up with their starpower. But functioning on all levels and playing defense at a high level, getting stops late? That might be beyond them yet.

Doc Rivers started and finished post-game with defense, in the Clippers' inability to contain and contest. Late in the game, Rivers put in Matt Barnes for defense on Durant (as if there is truly any way to stop Durant; ask Tony Allen about doing it over seven games). The problem then is that the Thunder played the Clippers the same way that the Grizzlies did last year in the Clippers' first-round exit. They doubled Paul and forced the ball to Barnes. That's not a coin flip that's evenly weighted, and it's not weighted in favor of the Clippers.

The Thunder's offense may be basic and simplistic, it may be predictable. But it is also primed to provide the best players with plenty of opportunities to punish the defense. When Westbrook and Durant are engaged, it is as close to unstoppable as one team can get. And that level is still something the Clippers are trying to find, with their roster, with their defense.

They can't play a perfect game with the Thunder and win. They have to find a way to make them flawed. Because their better can't defeat the Thunder's better. Not yet.

 
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