LOS ANGELES – As exciting as the first round of the NBA playoffs was, the second round needs to deliver something more important:
A team that looks and feels like it can actually dethrone the Miami Heat.
So it was a particularly welcome development for anyone wanting to see the Heat truly pushed to earn its third consecutive NBA title that the Oklahoma City Thunder stood up Friday night and imposed its will in a way only the very best do in the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Clippers played well. Blake Griffin was efficient en route to 34 points, Chris Paul was even more impressive with 21 points, 16 assists, no turnovers and three steals, and Griffin and DeAndre Jordan combined for six blocks and 19 rebounds.
The Thunder just didn't care.
Oklahoma City did what it does so well that it wouldn't be deterred, and even though the Clippers are down only by a 2-1 count in this series, it's absolutely trouble time for them already.
There is a feeling that sets in when one team just feels better than the other, and it usually sets in when that one team wins on the other team's home court in a manner that is clearly no fluke.
Yes, the Clippers won Game 1 in Oklahoma City, but it didn't feel like this did at Staples Center. This was the Thunder showing they can be a willful team with more than just two great players.
For the first time in a long time, Serge Ibaka made you think that perhaps it made sense for the Thunder to prioritize him over James Harden, who fizzled in the Houston Rockets' first-round failure against Portland.
Ibaka made some mistakes and got into foul trouble, and he didn't exactly shut down Griffin. There was also that moment when Ibaka was so preoccupied by Griffin diving through the lane on a cut that Ibaka retreated from the driving Paul to cover Griffin—and heard all about it from defensive fundamentalist Kendrick Perkins after Paul got the layup.
But Ibaka didn't shrink amid the mistakes or from the moment. He did so many good things in his 20-point game, making the Clippers pay for not recognizing his threat and so often not even rotating to him. And Thunder coach Scott Brooks marked it as a landmark game.
"A couple years ago, if he would've gotten two quick fouls, his game would've been a little dicey," Brooks said.
It's easy to forget Ibaka is only 24 with limited basketball experience, and at this very moment, there is good reason to acknowledge Ibaka is more equipped to play team ball and great defense next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook than Harden would be.
And, as Brooks noted: "He still has a few more levels he will get to."
Perhaps the San Antonio Spurs can put their seven-game first-round test behind them by asserting themselves on the road in Portland, but for now, with Ibaka rising, the Thunder already have advanced their playoff execution to a higher plane.
That is a necessity the Clippers are still coming around to understand. Griffin came into Game 3 Saturday night focused on something basic: "Try to be the aggressive one," he said. Fine, but that's merely a small part of the bigger plan in the playoffs.
Great teams are aggressive yet controlled enough to cut teams up with heartless execution. It's easy to remember Westbrook's three-pointer followed by Durant's 22-foot fadeaway to give the Thunder a 113-107 lead with 1:44 to play—and just chalk it up to their individual greatness.
No, it was greatness plus execution. Listen to how Westbrook explained the success of those plays: "Being patient. Running our sets."
Westbrook was open to hit that three because he knew he'd have space to step into his shot because he knew Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford were going to switch. Durant's shot happened because of similar execution. No, the Clippers did not want the 6'0" Paul guarding the 6'9" Durant, but when he was, Durant calmly shot over him.
The execution on earlier plays in the fourth quarter that resulted in Caron Butler sinking three three-pointers was also huge; Durant assisted on the final two, and he and Westbrook combined for 19 assists in the game. The Thunder used their small lineup to be more varied on offense, and it worked only because Westbrook and Durant trusted the system to share the ball.
"Down the stretch," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the Thunder, "they made every big play."
The context, however, is the critical thing there. They made every big play despite Ibaka's foul trouble, despite Westbrook dancing dangerously over the line of wildness for a time when angry about the officiating, despite Durant's terrible halfcourt shooting foul on Crawford before the third-quarter buzzer.
"Played through all of it," Westbrook said.
That is what great playoff teams do on the opponent's floor to create a feeling of fundamental power in a series.
From a lyrical perspective, it's tempting to ascribe that power OKC now has to Durant's moving NBA MVP speech triggering a team to come together, but that's simplistic.
For one thing, Durant and Westbrook both said Thunder players were thinking more about their no-show in Game 1 than Durant opening up that heartwarming community chest.
"We got embarrassed on our home floor," Westbrook said.
This isn't a team to flip the switch anyway. It is a team that was in the 2012 NBA Finals, the only team in the West to have reached the second round four consecutive years.
"This core has been together for awhile," Brooks said.
If Oklahoma City is going to lose, maybe it's because of lack of depth. But it shouldn't be, because the team isn't ready mentally to get it done.
And when you stop and realize that Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are all better than they've ever been, you understand how scary this Thunder team is—as long as it stays centered on excellent execution.
"We've grown leaps and bounds from where we were before," Durant said.
If the Thunder can carry it over to Game 4 Sunday, then we can safely say Oklahoma City is back where it started this season: the favorite to win the Western Conference and an absolute threat to win it all.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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