Neither team budged through three tight quarters. Then the Thunder went to a smaller lineup in the fourth and the Clippers’ defense shriveled.
Oklahoma City couldn’t be stopped in the final 12 minutes and went on to a 118-112 victory Friday night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
Kevin Durant scored 36 points, Russell Westbrook added 23 points and 13 assists, and Serge Ibaka, despite early foul trouble, had 20 points for the Thunder in a game that neither team ever led by double digits.
The Thunder have won two straight since getting blown out by 17 points in Game 1 at home.
"That loss definitely wasn’t our brand of basketball," Durant said. "The first game they picked us apart. We don’t want to get beat like that again."
Blake Griffin scored 34 points, and Chris Paul added 21 points and 16 assists for the Clippers, who saw their four-point lead disappear for good early in the fourth quarter. Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford added 20 points.
"They got everything," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "They got 3s, layups, key second shots. Down the stretch, they made every big play. We had shots, too, and they didn’t go in. We put way too much pressure on our offense because our defense wasn’t working."
Oklahoma City led 113-107 on Durant’s turnaround jumper with 1:23 left. It followed Westbrook’s 3-pointer after the Clippers had closed within 108-107 when Griffin muscled in for a layup.
"We did a good job of weathering storms throughout the game and sticking together," Durant said. "We’re going to have to do that even more next game if we want to win. It’s probably going to be the toughest game of the series."
Game 4 is Sunday at Staples Center.
The Thunder shot 56 percent, and controlled the paint and fastbreak points against a Clippers team that never got into their favored run-and-gun mode.
"We stayed small and they had some tough decisions to make on who to put their big on," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "In the fourth quarter our defense went up another level. Russell was finding guys. Everybody chipped in to help us win."
J.J. Redick, who got off to a hot start in Game 2, was held to five points on 1-of-6 shooting. DeAndre Jordan was never a factor for the Clippers either, with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Matt Barnes gave them a lift with 14 points.
The Thunder gradually pulled away in the fourth, scoring eight straight points, including Durant’s three-point play, to take the lead for good.
"When it’s time to score, we get the ball to Kevin and he does what he does," said Westbrook, who had eight rebounds, just missing his fourth triple-double in his last six playoff games.
Former Clipper Caron Butler hit three 3-pointers to give his team the lead and then extend it. He had a leading nine rebounds. Every Thunder player pulled down at least one board to outrebound the Clippers for the third straight game, 44-33.
"Early I thought we allowed too many easy baskets, dunks, layups," Griffin said. "We got to win the battle on the boards. We just did a poor job of putting a body on people."
Emotions boiled in the third, with double technicals called on Barnes and Kendrick Perkins, who stared hard at each other. Perkins took a step toward Barnes but got pushed away by Westbrook. By then, Griffin was already bloodied. He got hit in the face by Ibaka, but the only call by the referees was 3 seconds on the Clippers.
"We’re both fighting for something. It’s going to get chippy out there," Butler said. "We laid an egg in Game 1 but we came out fighting today. We had the right mindset and disposition."
Griffin held a towel to his gushing nose and changed his jersey during a timeout. He took up his case with the referee before play resumed to no avail.
"I took an elbow to the nose," he said. "When I asked him about it, he said I ran my face into his elbow, so I got to be careful where I put my face."
The Clippers rallied at the end of the period, outscoring the Thunder 8-0 to take a 90-86 lead. They did it on free throws except for Griffin’s basket. Reggie Jackson was called for a foul and a technical, and then Durant fouled Crawford on a 3-point attempt with less than a second left. He made all three.
Neither team led by more than seven points in the first half, when the lead changed hands 14 times and there were seven ties. Ibaka had three fouls and Thabo Sefolosha two for the Thunder.
NOTES: Shelly Sterling, the estranged wife of banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling, attended the game. Her lawyer has said she wants to retain her financial interest in the team. … Paul tied Elton Brand’s franchise record for most double-doubles in the playoffs with his sixth. … Paul and Durant earned double technicals late in the first half after using expletives. … Clippers F Hedo Turkoglu, out with a hairline fracture in his lower back, was able to pull on his gym shorts Friday, but Rivers said it’s not looking good for him to return. … Earlier Friday, the NBA hired Dick Parsons as the Clippers’ interim CEO. He is former chairman of Citigroup and Time Warner. Rivers said Parsons "is a very good hire." … Rivers handed Crawford his Sixth Man of the Year trophy at center court before the game. … Among the famous faces were Rihanna, former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, Billy Crystal, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, who pulled out his medal as the crowd cheered.