I think we can exhale for a moment. The Thunder held on against a tenacious LA Clippers team that seemed hell-bent on winning the regular season series. The recipe seemed perfect for another Thunder let-down. OKC had just come off of a huge road win against the Nuggets to effectively relegate them to the 5th seed, it was the second game of a back-to-back sequence, and the Nuggets will be coming to town again on Friday to conclude their regular season series. Meanwhile, the Clippers had just come off two huge wins for the young franchise (OKC, Grizzlies) and by the look of things want to finish their season strong. As I pontificated in the preview, it is a promising spectacle to see a 30 win team trying to win games at the end of the season rather than lose games to secure a lottery pick. It speaks well to the quality of players that the league now has and the motivation for franchises to move forward.
The game itself was a series of ebbs and flows as the Thunder team teetered between looking sluggish and surging forward in brief spurts. Starting off slowly, OKC had to figure out how hard it wanted to compete.
If you look at the game's box sore, you can see that the Thunder dominated in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, but those two quarters were bookended by poor defense and 31 points scored by the Clippers. Over the past 10 games I've begun mentally to track these individual quarter scores. In my mind, 24 points a quarter allowed is my baseline. If you extrapolate that number, you get about 96 points per game, which is a shade above OKC's team average since the All-Star break (95.3 points allowed). Anything below 24 points represents a strong defensive effort that goes a long way toward winning, and anything above 24 points represents defensive laxness. The two middle quarters represented defense that held the Clippers to a single score below that 24 point barrier. So it was not that the Thunder were great in those two quarters, but they were very close to their team benchmark.
However, beginning in that first quarter, it was apparent that fatigue from the day before was effecting the team. Blake Griffin dominated the Thunder early and often, getting 13 points in the 1st quarter and 20 for the half. What was more damaging though was that he was getting all of his points close to the rim and in transition. The Thunder did not help the situation by shooting poorly in the beginning, which additionally allowed the Clippers to get out on the fast break. LA began to utilize the same strategy that hurt the Thunder against the Clippers - guards were driving into the lane to get easy shots and create mismatches. However, unlike Denver, LA has a finisher in Griffin that Denver does not, and LA used this advantage to surge out to a 10 point lead.
The Second Unit.
As we have seen so many times this season, it was the Thunder's 2nd unit that helped right the ship. This time out, it was not so much that the starting five was playing poorly, it was that they did not have enough energy to meet the Clippers. The bench however, by way of playing less minutes on average, had a little bit more energy to give and the crew, led by Eric Maynor and James Harden, got to work. Maynor and Harden's statistical production doesn't look great - they only combined for 10 points - but it was the way in which they brought a greater energy level, particularly on the offensive end, that helped bring the Thunder back. You might think that Harden failing to reach double-digits made his play wasted, but if you actually saw the work he was doing, using all parts of the offense including Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison, you can see how Harden's contribution has a multiplying effect. By the time Kevin Durant returned with five minutes to go, the 2nd unit had turned a five point deficit into a five point lead, and the Thunder won the quarter by 10.
In the second half, the Thunder pushed the lead to a shaky 10 points but it felt like they were quickly running out of steam. Kevin Durant had continued his 3rd quarter struggles and the team was gasping for offense. Naturally, a day after questioning the struggles Russell Westbrook has had, the man came through. I think the biggest difference in this game was that Westbrook really tried to slow his game down and see what was going on in the offense and then do what was needed. It was reminiscent of his play in the early part of the season where his lukewarm games through three quarters turned into assaults on the rim in the second half.
The defense faltered again in the 4th as the Thunder bigs could not stay in front of the charging Clippers. Without their defense as a safety net, it was once again up to Westbrook and Durant to figure out a way to provide enough offense to hold on, and they did. Westbrook contributed six points and three assists in the 4th to give the Thunder just enough cushion to hang on. His game-ending slam was symbolic - it was his final stamp on a game in which the star players had to defend their home turf and not let the fatigue of the situation cost them a critical game.
- Kendrick Perkins - I really feel for the guy after seeing a game like this. Perkins is obviously a great competitor, holds himself highly accountable, and wants to be the kind of guy that his teammates can depend upon. He battled like a champ, grabbing 17 rebounds, nine of which were offensive. However, it is clear that he's physically not all the way back from his injury. He had a number of opportunities to convert layups or short jumpers and he had no lift out of his legs. He missed most of these simple shots, and finished the game 2-11. It has to be so difficult knowing that his body isn't allowing him to do everything that he possibly can to help the team win, yet inspirational that he continues to fight through it.
- Daequan Cook - I continue to be impressed by Cook's composure and contribution to the team. He has had national recognition as a former 3-point shooting champion and he is a natural shooter, and yet on this team, with all of its facets, he knows he is only going to get 10 minutes of game time at best. I'm sure he privately feels underused. And yet, whenever Cook comes in I start watching the game a little more closely because I know that he's going to get set up for some open looks. He has always been ready. He fits in well with the flow of the offense and never forces jumpers. The team has smartly gotten him minutes in the second half of the season, and Cook has not disappointed them.
- Clippers - They're a 31 win team that I think we can honestly say that if they were in the Eastern conference they'd be in a playoff seed. Unfortunately, thems the breaks. It would be nice if the conferences were better balanced out, but I think in the long term it will only make the franchise better. In getting a few good looks at them in the last week, they do remind me in a way of what the Philadelphia 76ers have done this year. They're tenacious, young, and athletic but a lot of the time disorganized and inefficient. Unfortunately I think a big part of that is coach Vinnie del Negro, who has not exactly earned a high reputation in the league for his coaching acumen. Perhaps the team just needs to grow together, however, just like OKC has. Their future is bright though, at least for the smallest of windows that the current NBA landscape allows.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 26 Points, 7 Assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, only 2 turnovers
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 15 points, 8 rebounds (4 offensive), 2 blocks
Thunder Blunder: Collectively, the Thunder defense
Thunder Plunderer: Blake Griffin, 35 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, zero turnovers
Next Game: Versus the Denver Nuggets, Friday, April 8th, 7 PM Central Daylight Time.