Halfway through Friday’s games, it seemed as if the night would be just another set of blowout duds in the conference semifinals, the NBA playoffs seemingly spent of exhilarating finishes in the insane opening round. The Indiana Pacers dropped the hammer on the Washington Wizards in a truly ugly war of attrition, as those of us who were in store for nearly three more hours of NBA basketball hoped not to have to endure another grind of that magnitude.
Fortunately, the always prickly Oklahoma City Thunder-Los Angeles Clippers matchup, which itself had featured less-than-thrilling contests in Games 1 and 2, delivered on evading a night of more NBA boredom in the shadow of the NFL Draft.
At the end of the night, we got two teams that seized control of their respective series and set up a pair of critical Game 4s starting Sunday afternoon. On to the games.
Takeaway: Indiana came into Game 3 on its heels, having surrendered home-court advantage after its embarrassing showing in Game 1, and the first 24 minutes Friday didn’t inspire much more confidence in the East’s No. 1 seed. That said, the Wizards were nothing to admire either. This game featured an excruciatingly sloppy first half, one in which both teams combined for 67 points — three fewer than the San Antonio Spurs posted alone in the first half of Thursday’s romp over the Portland Trail Blazers — and a miserable 33 percent clip for the field.
The second half proved no more fruitful for the suddenly hapless Wizards, who couldn’t endure poor shooting nights from Bradley Beal (6-of-19), Nene (3-of-14) and Marcin Gortat (2-of-7). Washington, in fact, came reasonably close to setting a new record for playoff scoring futility (54 by Utah vs. Chicago in 1998), notching its 56 point with fewer than five minutes left in the game. The Wizards did, however, set a franchise record for fewest points in a playoff game. The Pacers managed to get their act together, turning up the gas on the defensive boards and 50-50 balls, eliminating one of the Wizards’ most “effective” sources of offense in the first half. Meanwhile, Indiana moved the ball on offense, abandoning one-on-one exhibitions for favorable matchups and corner 3s.
The Pacers certainly haven’t regained their December form, but as the Eastern Conference has continued to allow, it probably won’t matter. Indiana may be able to skate to the conference finals on a good-but-not-great defense, coaxing their opponents’ offense to be slightly more horrifying than its own.
Star Review: The Wizards got absolutely nothing on offense from their big four as noted above, and they didn’t get much from anyone else on their roster either. Their offensive ineptitude got to the point that coach Randy Wittman elected to give Al Harrington, who hadn’t appeared in this series and logged only 7 minutes over two games in the first round, some burn in an attempt to get something going. Contract-year star Trevor Ariza was OK, but even a fair share of his 12 points came off second chances on a handful of his team-leading 15 rebounds.
Noted playoff waste receptacle Roy Hibbert (14 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks) showed up tonight with his usual array of hook shots and tight layups, but more importantly he demonstrated that no matter how few points he scores, he’s still going to make it a huge pain for the opponent to score at the rim. Paul George (23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals) and George Hill (3-of-5 from deep) had their jumpers going, and David West quietly put an end to a spirited attempt by the Wizards to close the gap in the fourth quarter with a few midrange jumpers over helpless shorter defenders.
Looking Ahead: Game 4 Sunday in D.C., 8 p.m. ET.
What To Look For: After it seemed like Washington was in the driver’s seat with its Game 1 win, the Pacers have wrested control away from the underdogs with a pair of grimy do-what-it-takes performances. Washington is still in this series and one can hope that a share of its offensive struggles was the result of slogging through a bad shooting night and not just suffocating Pacers defense. The Wizards’ horrendous 26 percent shooting on uncontested shots seems to support that. And it’s not a bad bet that Beal and Nene won’t combine to shoot 27 percent again. Moreover, the Wizards shot 13-of-19 at the rim and a miserable 11-of-54 from everywhere else. That really can’t get any worse.
Meanwhile, the Pacers have yet another opportunity to use an inferior opponent as a scratching post in advance of a possible conference finals matchup with the Miami Heat, a team that will not ever shoot 9-of-54 outside the area immediately around the rim. Indiana hasn’t won the series yet, but if Friday was any indication, the Pacers’ stout defense will get them out of the second round.
Takeaway: In yet another matchup between these Western Conference powerhouses that never wanted for chippiness, offenses reigned as Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin pushed their teams to triple-digit outputs, decidedly cleansing our palates of the Pacers-Wizards stinker. The Clippers put up 63 points in the first half, matching the Wizards’ production for their entire game. While Griffin and Chris Paul were brilliant throughout, the shots quit falling for Los Angeles in the fourth quarter, and that’s when the Thunder were just getting going. Durant and Russell Westbrook took on their usual roles as assassins, draining key jumpers, floaters and layups to keep the Clippers just out of reach. A pair of huge threes in the left corner by former Clipper Caron Butler buoyed the Thunder’s run in the fourth, and Serge Ibaka’s lean post defense on Griffin restricted the Clippers’ hopes of a comeback. At least Griffin had something to show for it — a bloody nose — after a postup against Ibaka in the third quarter.
Without a doubt, the Thunder are over the blowout at the hands of the Clippers in Game 1, and they retook their rightful home-court advantage. Paul played 42 minutes, and even that seemed like too few. Add a combined 7-of-28 shooting performance from Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes, and it’s evident why the Clippers had trouble keeping pace with a scorching-hot Durant and Westbrook.
Star Review: Griffin (34 points on 13-of-22 shooting, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) bowled his way through the lane with ease, capitalizing on myriad second-chance opportunities when Ibaka or Steven Adams would rebuff his initial drives. Paul sliced and diced around pick-and-rolls for his usual midrange jumpers to the tune of 21 points and found his teammates all over with his 16 assists. But Paul and Griffin’s excellence is greatest when it works in concert with efficient perimeter shooting, something the Clippers’ role players couldn’t provide Friday night. The Thunder did their best to take away the primary option, and the Clippers didn’t have anyone who could hit a shot reliably after that.
For the Thunder, Durant got whatever he wanted. He finished with 36 points on 14-of-24 shooting. And every time Jared Dudley spelled Barnes and drew the assignment on Durant, the league’s MVP put on his bib, licked his lips and went to work. Westbrook nearly logged a second-consecutive triple-double, finishing with 23 points, 8 rebounds and 13 assists. He also drained a stone-cold three in the fourth quarter to let most of the air out of L.A.’s comeback hopes. But the real surprise for the Thunder was Ibaka, who finished with 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting. His one miss? A corner three late in the fourth quarter.
Looking Ahead: Game 4 Sunday in L.A., 3:30 p.m. ET.
What To Look For: Friday marked the first time the Clippers have lost consecutive games in these playoffs, and you can be sure Doc Rivers will have his team prepared for a critical Game 4 on Sunday. Succumbing to the Thunder and going down 3-1 in the series would be a serious backbreaker, and L.A. needs to capitalize on its home-court advantage to square the series at two games apiece. The Clippers’ shooters won’t struggle so mightily as they did on Friday, so expect Paul and Griffin to have some more help.
Meanwhile, the Thunder need to keep doing more of the same. Ibaka is bound to regress to the mean a bit, but if Durant and Westbrook are once again as aggressive as they were Friday, it’s going to be hard for the Clippers to contain them. Ibaka played very well despite his foul trouble Friday, but picking up a few quick ones early is always a distinct possibility when guarding Griffin. If the Clippers can get Ibaka out of the game, that will severely limit the Thunder’s interior defense and give way for Paul to attack and create from within.