DENVER — Transforming from a shot-blocker into a shot-maker, Serge Ibaka tied his career high with 22 points and sparked the Oklahoma City Thunder's 97-94 win over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night that gave them a 3-0 lead in their best-of-7 playoff series.
Ibaka, a second-year pro from the Congo who led the league with 198 blocks during the regular season, gave the Thunder a third dimension on offense to go with All-Stars Kevin Durant (26 points) and Russell Westbrook (23).
Ibaka also set a career high by pulling down 16 rebounds, 10 on the defensive glass.
Not even the return of Arron Afflalo (13 points) from a troublesome hamstring injury or bounce-back performances from J.R. Smith (15 points) and Chris "Birdman" Andersen (13) could keep the Nuggets from falling to 0-5 against Oklahoma City this month and inching closer to elimination.
Smith's contested 3-pointer just before the buzzer fell well short and Smith argued for a foul call on James Harden, but the officials didn't blow their whistles.
Smith was hopping mad and stormed off the court after almost leading the Nuggets to an improbable rally in the final minute, when he hit two 3-pointers.
The Thunder can wrap up the series in Game 4 Monday night in Denver. It would be the franchise's first playoff series win since moving from Seattle in 2008.
The Nuggets were trying to win a playoff game without Carmelo Anthony for the first time since May 19, 1994, against Utah, but they were done it by poor shooting from the floor and the stripe and the play of Ibaka, who sank all 10 of his free throws.
Ibaka's previous career playoff high was 12 points in Game 2 Wednesday night. His career high is 22 points, set on Nov. 15, 2010, at Utah.
Nene had 15 point and 10 boards for the Nuggets, who took a 73-71 lead into the fourth quarter before going cold and watching Oklahoma City pull away behind Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.
A 3-pointer by Smith pulled Denver to 95-94, but Ibaka made it 97-94 on a fastbreak dunk. After a timeout, Smith was bottled up and fired an off-balance 3-pointer with Harden all over him.
Anthony was traded in February along with Chauncey Billups in the NBA's biggest blockbuster deal of the season, taking his talents to Broadway for a bevy of young players and draft picks just days before the Thunder reshaped their roster with the acquisition of bruiser Kendrick Perkins from Boston.
The new Nuggets relied on teamwork and a healthy dose of pick-and-roll offense to go 18-7 after their big trade and secure coach George Karl's fourth straight 50-win season. But in these playoffs the Thunder have made them look much like the old Nuggets who served as first-round fodder for six of the seven seasons with 'Melo in the mix.
The Nuggets sorely missed the sharp-shooting of Anthony and Billups from the free throw line. They missed 15 of 45 free throws on this night, making them 79 for 115 (69 percent) in the series.
Smith and Andersen sparked an 11-1 run that gave the Nuggets a 73-71 lead after three quarters. But the Nuggets missed four foul shots during the spurt, including three with a second left after Durant fouled Raymond Felton and then picked up a technical for arguing the call.
It was a harbinger of Denver's errant shots to come.
The Nuggets missed seven of their first eight shots of the fourth quarter and although the Thunder weren't much better from the field, Westbrook scored on a lay-up and sank three free throws to give Oklahoma City an 81-76 lead they would never surrender.
Afflalo played for the first time since April 11, when he aggravated a strained left hamstring that's cost him 13 games over the final month of the regular season. The Nuggets missed his defense, particularly on the pick-and-roll, and his three-point prowess.
After sitting out the other four losses to Oklahoma City this month, Afflalo gave the Nuggets another defender to throw at Westbrook, who was his teammate at UCLA, and Durant.
Smith had an awful performance in Game 2 and was benched for the second half. On Thursday, he was so frustrated that he suggested his five-year stint in Denver was coming to a close this summer but he backed off a day later and said he was ready for a shot at redemption. The Thunder outscored the Nuggets by 17 points when Smith was on the court, so he took a seat for entire second half, along with Andersen.
Both entered in the first quarter Saturday night and did well, Andersen announcing his entrance with a rim-rattling dunk and Smith with a sweet 3-pointer as the Nuggets closed the first quarter with a 11-2 run to take a 31-26 lead.
Karl predicted Thursday that the Nuggets would even up the series at home, proclaiming: "It's going to be a great Easter weekend. We're going to win two games, and it's going to be a best-of-3 series."
Instead, the Nuggets find themselves squarely facing another of Karl's philosophies, one that holds a series doesn't truly begin until the road team wins.
So, consider this series officially started, and in 48 hours, the Thunder has a chance to end it.
Notes: Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who used to serve on Karl's staff in Denver, has taken a lot of questions about playing at altitude, and he quipped: "These are world-class athletes. They are well-trained and well-conditioned. It's not we're going up and down the stairs of Red Rocks. Then, I would be worried about the altitude. I tried that one time here, and it wasn't pretty." ... Among those sitting courtside was former Colorado Avalanche star Joe Sakic. ... Ibaka pulled down 15 boards at San Antonio on Feb. 23.