Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers Series Preview

RIVALRY ARRRRRRRR - Stephen Dunn

A regular season series rundown, matchup previews, and keys to winning the series. What more could you need?

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Regular Season Series

Game 1, November 13th: Loss, 111-103

Storyline: This game sticks out pretty well in my mind. It was the first loss of the season with Westbrook on the floor, and it felt rather unjust. I mean, if you were pissed about ZBo missing the last game of the OKC-MEM series, you're not alone. But I was even more cheesed when I discovered that Serge Ibaka was ejected for sillier reasons against the Clippers earlier this season. He and Griffin got into it during a rebound, and Ibaka ended up shoving Griffin to get him off. Matt Barnes involved himself for no reason and got ejected, as well.

Normally Ibaka's absence wouldn't be enough to tip the scales in the Clippers' favor, but the Thunder were also playing without Kendrick Perkins. He was attending his grandfather's funeral in Beaumont, Texas. This left OKC with Nick Collison, two-week rookie Steven Adams, and Hasheem Thabeet. That's some solid interior D, but it's no match for one of the highest-flying combos in the league. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin had super-efficient games while Collison got into foul trouble, and the Thunder just got out-scored.

Reasons we lost the game (Via Trey Hunter):

1: Turnovers. For three seasons the Thunder have fought the turnover-bug. It showed against the Clippers. The Thunder turned it over 22 times, including eight in the final 12 minutes. The Clippers turned 22 turnovers into 24 points, including 16 easy points in the final period.

2: Rebounds. The Thunder don't get out-rebounded very often. They got out-rebounded 50-35 against the Clippers. L.A. does have an imposing front-line with Jordan and Griffin, however, when healthy, Oklahoma City's bigs should be able to improve in that area. And if Ibaka didn't get ejected, the rebound totals might be a little different.

3: Defense. The Thunder got out-worked by Doc Rivers' Clippers, especially to start the game and in the second half. Oklahoma City played good defense for about eight minutes.

Links: WTLC RecapHighlightsPopcorn Machine

Game 2, November 21st: Win, 105-91

Storyline: This game was only a couple of days after the first, and the Thunder were primed for revenge. Ibaka and Perkins were back in the lineup, and proceeded to completely shut down Blake Griffin in the first quarter. Our friend from Oklahoma doesn't go down without a fight though, and after starting the first quarter 0-4, he finished the game 12-19.

The Clippers did most of their damage with Blake in the game. Back in November, LA had a serious depth problem, as they hadn't yet acquired Glen Davis or Danny Granger. Most notably, they had absolutely nobody to help them out at center. So, in this game, Ryan Hollins and B.J. Mullens played some disastrous minutes. They poorly defended the post, and contributed little elsewhere. Furthermore, Darren Collison was having an off-night, so the entirety of the second unit's offensive load fell on Crawford.

An interesting note from this game is Russell Westbrook's statline. He shot only 5-13 in this game, and had 3 turnovers to go along with his 5 assists. His 0-6 day from three might have a lot to do with it, but during a game the Thunder were so offensively efficient in, it's a surprising statistic. Durant ended up taking over a lot of the ballhandling that night, dishing 8 assists.

Reasons we won the game (Via Kevin Yeung):

How great was Oklahoma City's defense? The Clippers are one of the league's most dangerous offensive teams, and the Thunder were able to limit them to 41.9% shooting from the field and 28.6% from three. Even though Griffin scored 27 points, Serge Ibaka did a great job of making things difficult on Griffin with his length for most of the game (Ibaka had 3 blocks and I swear they were all on Blake in the post). Even in that third quarter where Blake scored 15 points on 10 shots, Ibaka forced Blake to really use every bit of his back-to-basket skill, footwork and shot-making skill. Meanwhile, Steven Adams was consistently in the right place and picked up 3 blocks of his own in just 23:41. (PT-split update: Perkins played just 19:53)

Out on the perimeter, our guards did a solid job of sticking with Chris Paul and crew. The Thunder seemed to be a bit eager in helping off of shooters and leaving them open, but fortunately J.J. Redick was off and Jared Dudley is still struggling mightily this season. Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford were lured into taking more pull-up twos from deep midrange than they probably should have, though Crawford still knocked down those shots because that's what Jamal Crawford does. Still, that was exactly the game plan that Scott Brooks wanted to employ.

"We like guys taking long twos. That’s what we talk about every night. If we can force guys to take long two’s, we feel that’s to our advantage." -Coach Brooks, post-game

Links: WTLC RecapHighlightsPopcorn Machine

Game 3, February 23rd: Loss, 125-117

Storyline: At this point in the season, a lot had happened. Russell Westbrook went off to have a third knee surgery, returning just three days before this game tipped off. In Westbrook's absence, the Thunder ended up playing above .500 ball and beating the best of the best. However, they were inconsistent, and would drop games due to bad transition defense and ball movement.

Westbrook certainly helped out the latter, but he was definitely limited in his first few games back. You could tell that he didn't want to put his body on the line nearly as much, and his jumpshot wasn't nearly as consistent. Still, Russ' poor stat line (3-13 shooting, 6 assists to 3 turnovers) is hard to ignore. For more on that situation, you can check out Chris Hanneke's excellent Paul vs. Westbrook head-to-head piece.

Meanwhile, LA was still facing serious depth problems, and really struggled when their starters were off the floor. The injury to J.J. Redick (who was essential to LA's first win) didn't help matters, as it forced Jamal Crawford into a starting role. But those 10 minutes of heck can't be compared to the 38 minutes that their starters put together, and they were able to

Reasons we lost the game (Via J.A. Sherman):

Here is a little bit of reality that I've observed in watching the Clippers a handful of times this season: they are not a good defensive team. To be sure they can play good defense from time to time, but structurally, strategically, and mentally they don't form a good cohesive defensive unit. I was watching them play the Spurs the other night and was texting the game with Pounding the Rock's J.R. Wilco, and we were in simple amazement at how disorganized the Clips were defensively. I quipped that their defensive strategy consisted of "running around with their arms raised." The Spurs, playing without their catalyst Tony Parker, carved them up in the 4th simply by rotating the ball out of the double team, swinging the ball weak side, and then running to the rim for layups.

What frustrated me most from this loss is not that OKC lost or that they played bad defense, but that their offense was so one dimensional and static, even compared to the 1st half, that they never gave themselves their best shot at overtaking the Clips. The offense consisted, at best, of 2 passes and a shot. More often than not, it was one pass and a shot, or even no passes and a quick shot. This has long been my primary criticism at the Thunder offense, especially in the 4th quarter. It is not that it lacks imagination or is overly simplistic, but that these guys, with their big scary claws, just bat the bunny around a bit. Between Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and even Reggie Jackson, the Thunder should never be settling for quick contested jumpers, be it against the Heat, the Clippers, or even against the Magic.

The defense will clean itself up once Westbrook gets on the same page again and they start to care a bit more. The 4th quarter offense though, that's a mental processing thing and they need to do a better job of matchup recognition to provide themselves with better chances to win.

Links: WTLC RecapHighlightsPopcorn Machine

Game 4: April 9th: Win, 107-101

If you're looking for a game that can accurately replicate what a playoff scenario might be like, then this game still isn't it. But it's as close as you're going to get. The Thunder had managed to find their groove by this point in the season, and were finally free of the litany of injuries that had plagued them later in the season. Caron Butler was working himself into the rotation, while Perk and Thabo were rehabbing from injury. Meanwhile, the Clippers were all over the place. They had made a power move by acquiring Glen Davis and Danny Granger, but Granger would be out with injury. J.J. Redick finally recovered from his eternal back injury, but an achilles injury had sidelined an arguably more important scorer in Jamal Crawford. This left the Clips bench barren, and with the Thunder's bench perfectly tooled to stop the bulk of Davis, you can imagine what happened.

Yep, the Thunder went on a couple of runs while the Clippers' bench was in the game, and they were able to win. But that's not the whole story. KD really struggled from the field, as he was bodied up by the Clippers defense and couldn't establish any range. He did hit a clutch jumper in the end, but with how he struggled in the first round, it's enough to make you worry.

On Coach Brooks' end, he went with a large lineup most of the game, giving significant time to Adams, Perk, and Collison. Griffin still managed to go off on the Thunder, but it is worth noting that the Clippers went on a 9-0 run as soon as Brooks went small at the end of the 3rd, and that they went on a 14-0 run with a small lineup in during the mid-fourth. Also, quite hilariously, the Clippers went on a 7-0 run at the end of the second when Brooks tried to play Perk with a bunch of wings. Comeon, Scotty.

Reasons we lost the game (Via old me):

But what makes Westbrook such a huge asset is his determination. It's something that's hard to quantify, but he's one of the few players you'll see that takes a shot, sees how it's going to miss, and runs at the opposing rebounder in an attempt to get the rebound or a steal. It's true that plays like this sometimes torpedo the team, but when they're successful, they can really get the momentum going in the Thunder's direction.

Case in point: After Westbrook's first steal in the first quarter, the Thunder went on a 4-0 run that put the team up 29-19. They also forced Blake Griffin to commit a defensive three second violation. After Westbrook's steal in the third quarter, the Thunder went on a 8-0 run that involved three Clipper turnovers, including two by Chris Paul. It's impossible to quantify an effect that's purely psychological, but I do feel like that old fashioned Honey Badger tenacity played into our favor.

Links: WTLC RecapHighlightsPopcorn Machine

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Matchups

Lob City vs. Block City

LA: Griffin, Jordan, Davis

OKC: Perkins, Ibaka, Collison, Adams

These guys will be cross-matched against each other constantly, so they might as well count for one matchup. In the past, Blake Griffin has been a star in this area, and that figures to continue. Griffin is virtually unstoppable when he gets near enough to the rim, and knows exactly what shots he can make. It's extremely rare for him to have a bad shooting night, and it's unlikely that the Thunder will be able to force him into multiple bad performances. Moreover, the Clippers have more offensive options than the Grizzlies did, so Griffin doesn't have to take nearly as many shots.

Still, Griffin has evolved his game into that of a distributor, and is making a serious case as one of the best players in the league. The only problem is his defense, which can really waver at times. It's not that Griffin or Jordan is particularly lacking in effort or skill. Rather, their awareness simply isn't very good. They'll lock in on certain players and commit too early, try too hard to pressure, or simply forget  where they are. I'm not trying to paint a portrait of them as idiots, but when you compare their performance to that of Oklahoma City's interior, it's no contest.

However, OKC's prize-winning brawlers of the paint will need to give it their all in this series. The Clippers aren't quite as physical as the Grizzlies are, but they're just as prone to lure you into fouls with great feats of athleticism and heroics. Foul trouble on the part of the Thunder's bigs was key in both of LA's victories this season, so it will be interesting to see if the Thunder's depth holds true.

Also, expect big things from Ibaka offensively. Blake Griffin always gets him fired up, and LA's inattentive D always allows him to roam around for easy shots.

KD vs. the Crowd

KD: OKC's primary offensive weapon

The crowd: Barnes, Dudley, and a lot of double-teams

The Clippers don't really have a foil for Kevin Durant. It's kind of strange, because almost every other contending team seems to be stocked with a long-armed high-energy wing that is fairly capable of getting into KD's grill. The Clippers only have Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley, two players who are more renowned for their scoring and shooting ability. Neither are particularly bad, but with the Clippers bereft of a specialist in that area, KD has been able to go off against the Clippers historically. Even this season, he's dropped 42 on the team.

However, the Clippers have forced KD to struggle at times, most notably on April 9th. Mostly, the Clippers saw success by double-teaming KD and successfully packing the paint. When Jordan was able to switch onto KD during certain moments, it was apparent that his length bothered KD's shot. I don't think that the Clippers are defensively solvent enough to do that to KD consistently, though. If anything, KD should have the advantage here.

From the Clippers, don't expect a ton of production out of either Barnes or Dudley. Dudley hardly played in the last series, so it's entirely possible that KD could be matched against Granger or mismatched against smaller players for large portions of the game. Barnes should knock in a few threes during a critical game or get Ted up, but that's about all he does nowadays.

LA's Lights meet OKC's Nights

Lights: Crawford, Redick, Dudley, and Granger

Nights: Butler and the defense of KD, Westbrook, Jackson, and Fisher

Why Lights vs. Nights? Well, it's because I feel that the Clipper backcourt is a perfect example of how I see LA. It's all about flashiness. Crawford isn't elite, but he's one of the best shooters in the game today, and he has the capability of getting extremely hot. Redick is more tactically sound, but he's also a dead-on shooter. Dudley can surprise a few people given some space, and Granger, well, he used to be an All-Star. The Thunder are going to have to do all they can to stop the onslaught of these players, especially when one of them is slotted in at power forward and the Clips start firing up transition threes.

It will be particularly interesting to see if Scott Brooks gives us the return of Thabo Sefolosha. Thabo didn't play in the latter part of the Thunder-Grizzlies series, because he had no one to defend. He was particularly calm about the decision to put Caron Butler in his place, so I'm assuming he's either on his way out of OKC or prepping to seriously lock down Crawford. Butler, on the other hand, needs to do all he can to cover his man. He's been known to slip too far off of shooters on the weak side (and even the strong side sometimes).

All Heart, All Hustle, All Hardwood

Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook

Chris Paul has never been particularly good against Russell Westbrook. Some might like to think it's because he was Oklahoma City's first media darling and is forever cursed for involuntarily leaving us to go do State Farm commercials. But really, it's because he's not much of a perimeter shooter. He needs time and space if he's going to nail a three, which is a recipe for disaster when you're 6'0" and can't score inside.

Normally, Paul can score inside with ease. He's great at hitting a shot from anywhere close to the basket, finding space among trees, drawing fouls, and seeing other players on the floor. But when he's matched up against a man who has three inches and 13 pounds on him, it's a bit harder to find room. Especially when that man is Russell Westbrook, one of the most athletic guards in NBA history.

Westbrook's story in this series will be one of effectiveness. He hasn't been very successful

The Little People

Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher vs. Darren Collison

Predicting anything amongst these players is impossible. Reggie Jackson came into the Grizzlies series like a lamb and came out like a lion. Initially, he struggled with giving up points to Beno Udrih and got too bull-headed on offense. But, he somehow turned that into incredible tenacity that practically saved the series for OKC. Collison is similarly off and on, partially because he plays in limited minutes. Derek Fisher will serve as an effective background character in this series, with the ability to turn the tides at any moment.

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Keys to winning the series

1. Force Blake Griffin into one bad shooting night. He's the heart and soul of the Clipper offense, so this is absolutely essential. I'd like to see Ibaka keep him as far from the rim as possible, and to always have a second guy on hand to contest him at the rim. I'll give up DeAndre Jordan's 10 points of garbage if it means we can make some stands against Blake and turn them into puntos.

2. Make sure Chris Paul doesn't become a factor. He's always going to kill us in terms of assists, and he's going to be able to hide on the wing defensively. But if this series goes 6 games, he should be shooting more than 40% on four of those nights. The only way he'd be able to do so is if his defender can't cover his shot, if Blake is tearing it up inside, or someone just lost their mind.

3. Score. The Clippers might be a faster-paced team and a higher scoring team, but the Thunder are perfectly capable of outscoring them on a regular basis. During last round, there were times where Golden State was having serious trouble moving the ball, and couldn't do much to attack the paint beyond isolating the ball on the block. The Thunder don't really live and die by the three (except in the fourth quarter, lol), so they should be able to stem the tide in lean times with trips to the line.

4. Get Ibaka the ball. If there's one series where this guy is going to make an impact, it's in this one. As I said earlier, he's particularly aggressive against Blake Griffin, and does a good job of roaming around for open shots amongst a porous defense. But even when Ibaka has an off night, you've got to get him the ball. Not in post isolations, but just in general. The Clips are only going to be too eager to send a defender to help contain Durant or Westbrook, so Ibaka's the most sure-fire way to produce 15-20 extremely efficient points. He's also a great option in the clutch, if he'd stop being ignored during that timeframe.

5. Refresh the rotations. If the Thunder go with 9 men for the rest of the playoffs, Scott Brooks deserves to lose. There's too much talent on this bench not to be used, and there's absolutely no reason that Thabo shouldn't get time in this series. J.A. made a good point in the grades post for Game 7 of the OKC-MEM series by saying that his presence wasn't exactly missed there. But with all of the transition play and wing scoring liable to happen in this series, I feel like his inclusion would be a huge boon. Furthermore, Brooks needs to make an effort to sit KD and Westbrook during the late third or early fourth. Having one of those dudes off-point in the clutch due to fatigue is really getting taxing.

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Series Prediction: Thunder in 6.

How do you think the series will go? Drop a vote, drop a comment!

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