Round 2, new opponent, new problems. Here are 10 thoughts about Thunder-Clippers:
1. Does the season series tell us anything? The Thunder and Clippers split it 2-2, with caveats on most of the games except the last. In the first meeting, a 111-103 Clipper win, Serge Ibaka was ejected right before halftime after starting the game 6-6 from the field. The second, the Thunder won in OKC 105-91 in impressive fashion. The third, the Clippers rolled into OKC the second game back for Westbrook and shredded the Thunder 125-117. And the fourth, the one with a playoff feel as the importance of the No. 2 seed hung in the balance, the Thunder held on for a 107-101 win behind 30 from Westbrook.
So, like I asked myself and then didn’t answer, did we learn anything from those four games? Mostly, my takeaway from them is that both teams are very good, and both teams can win any given game. So much of the way both play is based around sh0t making. The Thunder have always defended Chris Paul pretty well, and have the interior muscle to bang with Blake Griffin. But Jamal Crawford is a massive problem, as is the transition attack the Clippers have.
2. Who starts for OKC? It’s sounding like Scott Brooks will restore his original starting unit, putting Thabo Sefolosha back in the first five. Good idea, considering how well Caron Butler played in those final two games against Memphis? Actually, I think so. First, one of the biggest strengths of the Clippers is their bench, and taking Butler off OKC’s would shorten the Thunder’s rotation considerably. Second, comparing the situations of the Grizzlies and Clippers isn’t exactly fair. Thabo didn’t have a remaining role against Memphis because of his inability to produce anything resembling offense. And where his value was — defense — the Thunder weren’t in desperate need of it because of the Memphis’ personnel.
But against the Clippers, Thabo has done really solid work on Chris Paul in the past, and can chase J.J. Redick around all those screens. Butler isn’t nearly as athletic or versatile on that end as Thabo, and while the Thunder might be able to expose the mismatch on the other end with Butler in the mid-post on Redick, they could have matchup issues defensively.
3. Dealing with DeAndre Jordan. If there was a starting lineup change, it might should be sitting Kendrick Perkins in favor of either Steven Adams or Nick Collison. And I don’t say this slighting Perk — he played some outstanding basketball against the Grizzlies, maybe seven of the best games he ever has for the Thunder. His work on Zach Randolph and then Marc Gasol in Game 7 was sensational and the Thunder aren’t in this position without him.
But, he’s no match for Jordan’s size and athletic power. Jordan can jump over the top of Perk and with his foot-speed, opens up all sorts of transition opportunities. Perk missed two of the games against the Clippers this season (coincidentally, the Thunder’s two wins came in the ones he played…), and the numbers (small sample size, of course) say he was a big help. With him on the floor against the Clippers, the Thunder allowed 97.3 points per 100 and scored 112.6. With him off, 105.8 and 102.9.
Adams had clear issues dealing with Paul’s expertise in the pick-and-roll, but the concern is the pure physical mismatch that’s created. And Perk has always had a great defensive feel for the pick-and-roll. But the problems are the lob game, the transition attacks and the offensive rebounding. After writing these three paragraphs, I’m going back and forth on it. I fear that Perk isn’t going to be a good match, but the limited numbers we have say he might be. So I guess we’ll just have to watch it play out a bit and see.
4. Will OKC play small? The Clippers don’t play all that much without their two bigs on the floor together, but the Thunder will have the opportunity to try Durant at the 4 a bit. Blake Griffin can obviously muscle him, but for a few stretches, it could be worth trying to space the floor and find offensive sparks. The Thunder have quality frontline depth, but smallball would put Doc Rivers in a bit of a bind, especially if Durant can hold his own. It would mean either Rivers subs one of his bigs (Jordan, obviously), or either Griffin or Jordan would be on a guard and pulled out of the lane allowing Durant and Westbrook to attack more aggressively.
5. X-factors? The Thunder’s: Steven Adams. In the final regular season game he was tremendous, adding a needed physicality to the floor, while still maintaining OKC’s athletic advantage. He played 20 minutes and had seven points and seven rebounds. Griffin isn’t going to be able to muscle him and he has the size to hang with Jordan. Adams’ inexperience and inconsistency defending the pick-and-roll will be two big issues, but he’s come a long way from the player he was in those two starts against the Clippers.
For the Clippers, it’s obviously Jamal Crawford. He lit the Thunder in the February meeting and is one of the rare players in the league that can not only get a shot himself in late clock situations, but make them.
6. Durant against the Clippers. Durant’s four games this season: 32.5 points on 44.1 percent shooting, 29.2 percent from 3, 4.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists. Durant averaged 10.5 free throw attempts per game, 23.3 shot attempts and 6.0 3-point attempts. The Clippers really have only one primary defender to stick on Durant in Matt Barnes, but could try Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock or Danny Granger.
Whatever the case is, while Barnes is an irritant much in the way Francisco Garcia tries to be, this is quite the reprieve from Tony Allen’s all-world defense. Barnes will try and be physical, but he doesn’t have the strength or sheer willpower Allen does. Durant’s life should be a bit easier, especially with him finding a rhythm and some needed confidence and swagger in those last two games.
7. Westbrook against the Clippers. Westbrook’s four games this season: 18.5 points on 39.7 percent shooting, 23.5 percent from 3, 6.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Westbrook averaged 17 shot attempts a game, 5.5 free throw attempts and 4.3 3-point attempts. His numbers are a bit skewed from his second game back after the All-Star break where he struggled going 3-13 from the field, and his last game in April might be a better indication of what he can do — 30 points on 12-24, 11 rebounds and six assists. Which Russell is going to show up? CP3 is going to bring that competitive dog out of Westbrook and it’s going to be a matter of if he can keep himself in check.
Which Westbrook is going to show up? The guy that mercilessly murdered the Grizzlies in the final two games, or the erratic can’t-help-himself hellion that flies recklessly all over trying to do too much? I think the final two games were a bit of a eureka moment for Westbrook, but when times get tough and things get tight, that’s often when he can’t hold back.
8. Griffin versus Ibaka. These two have a history, starting with Ibaka’s karate chop to Griffin’s balls. With the way both play, there’s going to be lots of banging, lots of wrestling, lots of tangling, lots of flopping (on one end) and lots of problems. Prepare yourselves.
9. Coaching matchup. Doc Rivers is an all-timer coach, and Scott Brooks is still trying to convince people he’s competent. The common thought is the Clippers have a considerable advantage here, but so much of coaching is personnel and how you utilize it. And in this series, Brooks is going to have the two best players on the floor most times — that’s right, I think Westbrook is better than CP3 — but it’s about taking advantage of it all. The Thunder have enough depth to hang with the Clippers, but it’s going to be on Brooks to make sure the proper lineups and adjustments are used.
10. Prediction. This will be a painful, up-and-down, tormenting series. Both teams are excellent, and both are entirely capable of moving on. The Clippers have the current support of the world on their side, and seem to be set up to ride a wave of emotion into a dream season story. Then again, the Thunder have the best player in the series, and homecourt advantage. The first two games will tell us a lot, but there’s no question this thing is going to go back and forth.
I think the Thunder have the overall advantage, mainly because they have Durant, and the Clippers don’t. Interior focused basketball can sometimes run dry in the playoffs — despite popular thinking among those like Charles Barkley — because the games get more physical and a tangled six-foot hook shot isn’t near as reliable as an open 18-footer from Durant.
The Clippers are really good. And this will be tough. But the Thunder survived the Grizzlies with a re-discovered toughness and defensive mettle that they had been missing the last few weeks. And they have No. 35.
Thunder in seven.