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Thunder undertake Griffin-less Clippers

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The three seed is on the line!

I can only imagine how hard it must be to care for that condor in the middle of Los Angeles.
I can only imagine how hard it must be to care for that condor in the middle of Los Angeles.
W. Bennett Berry

The Clippers started the season a rocky 16-13. But since Christmas Day, the Clippers have gone 23-7. The Thunder, by comparison, are 20-9 after Christmas Day. Nevertheless, due to OKC's strong start, they maintain two less losses than the Clippers do on the year. Heading into the final stages of the season, it appears the race for the 3 seed will be neck and neck. That makes this game all the more important for these two teams

Sure, you could make the argument that the 3 seed is meaningless, with Golden State and San Antonio looming in the second round. But Golden State is significantly better than San Antonio, by current estimations. Furthermore getting the three seed could draw a significantly easier first round matchup. The Portland Trail Blazers are really hot right now, having gone 18-4 since January 10th. That includes wins over OKC and Golden State. At their current pace, the Blazers will easily wrap up the fifth seed. So the Thunder and Clippers will definitely be laying it all on the line tonight.

Why are the Clippers so good without Blake?

The tale of the Clippers this year is extremely strange, because the Clippers have gone on their recent run without Blake Griffin. A fractured hand has kept Griffin out of the lineup since December 27th, and won't be healthy until at least mid-March. Once healthy, Griffin will have to serve a four game team suspension. The suspension is due to Griffin's punching of a Clippers training staff member back on January 26th.

What's the reason for the Clippers non-Griffin success? The brutal truth may be scheduling and luck. Here's a nice explanation from Ben Golliver over at SI:

The Clippers’ nine opponents during their current winning streak enter Wednesday’s action with an average record of 119-222 (.349). None of those nine are currently above .500, only one is currently in the playoff picture (Utah, the West’s No. 8 seed), only one has an above-average defensive efficiency (Charlotte, at No. 14), only two have above-average offensive efficiencies (No. 10 Portland and No. 13 Charlotte) and six of those games came against division basement-dwellers (the Pelicans twice, the Hornets twice, the Lakers and the Sixers).

But, as Dan Woike of the Orange County Register pointed out this week, those ugly surface-level numbers overstate the strength of the Clippers’ recent slate. For various reasons, many of them injury-related, L.A. was able to duck Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, Washington’s Bradley Beal, Charlotte’s Al Jefferson and Nicolas Batum, Portland’s CJ McCollum, and New Orleans’s Anthony Davis, among other key players.

Of course, that's ignoring some insane performances from Chris Paul. As I know from Paul's days as an OKC Hornet, his ability to bring together a ramshackle team is remarkable. When Paul is in your lineup, you're guaranteed to win games. Since Griffin's injury, Paul has averaged 24 points on 50% from the floor, with nine assists to just two turnovers. That would be on pace for the highest scoring season of Paul's entire career.

How Thunder-Clippers I went down

The Thunder and Clippers have met once this season, back on December 21st. Griffin played, but the Thunder were able to eek out a 100-99 victory. Forgive the long quote that follows, but J.A. Sherman had a fantastic description of the Thunder's defensive strategy in that game that I have to share:

"Had we been watching the Thunder defense from a month ago, the Thunder would have had no chance to win this game. The Clippers are perennially one of the best offensive teams in the NBA. Even though they are struggling thus far this season, their offense is still potent behind the work of Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Redick. Redick runs non-stop, leveraging his gravity to pull defenders all over the court to try and stop him from finding open 3-pointers. Meanwhile, the middle of the action features Paul, Griffin, and Jordan running a near-unstoppable middle pick and roll set that yields high percentage looks.

On this night however, the Thunder had a defensive plan in place to a) limit Redick's open looks; and b) limit Jordan's attacks on the rim. On these two fronts, the Thunder not only made the grade, but did it well enough to overcome their own offensive sloppiness. The reason why their defense is starting to find its identity is because Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters were willing to chase Redick all night long, rarely letting him get away long enough for open shots, and Redick finished only 6-14 on the night. Meanwhile, Steven Adams was able to match up with Jordan's athleticism at the rim and not give way to Jordan's alley-oops and offensive put-backs. Indeed, Jordan only finished with 8 points and was held to a mere 3 shot attempts on the night.

On top of that, the Thunder defensive strategy opted to yield one particular shot - the Griffin 18 footer. OKC gave Griffin that shot all night long, and Griffin could not make them pay, by hitting only 3-12 shots from above the free throw line."

Taking this into account for tonight's matchup, the Clippers will probably rely on J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan even more than usual. Thus, it will be important for Andre Roberson to keep pace with Redick, while Steven Adams stays out of foul trouble in the paint. It's a real luxury to have your two best defenders in positions to stop the other team's two best scorers.

The Effect of Jeff Green

The new X-Factor that could really throw a wrinkle into things is Jeff Green. The Clippers made a move for Green at the deadline, figuring that he could bring scoring to the bench unit. But as we know well at WTLC, Green has struggled to find a consistently effective role on every team that he's played on. And that may hold true with the Clippers as well. In five games so far, Green is averaging 11.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Clippers fans are seemingly satisfied. In the latest Clip Chat, much of the discussion centered around giving Paul Pierce's starting spot to Jeff Green.

The Thunder will likely counter Jeff Green with a combo of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Nick Collison is also a possibility, if he plays. With that combo of competent defenders, I wouldn't expect Green to have a fantastic game. But if the Clippers keep the pace brisk, who knows.

Chris Paul vs. Westbrook

This matchup is always gritty and tough. Paul and Westbrook are two of the most consistently physical point guards in the NBA, so they tend to bring out the best in each other's competitiveness. But Paul has traditionally held the upper hand in the regular season. As you can see above, Paul averages more points, assists, and steals than Westbrook does. Paul's dominance holds true for the recent past as well. In the last four meetings between Paul and Westbrook, Westbrook shot a combined 37.9%. However, with Paul shouldering a larger portion of his team's offensive load, perhaps he will have less energy on defense.

How tonight's game will go

I'm expecting a playoff type atmosphere with a high level of defense. The Thunder and Clippers tend to cancel out each other's potent offenses, and finish with each team at about 100 points. I'm also expecting a big game from Kevin Durant. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is definitely a nice counter to Durant, but Durant hit a game-winning shot over Mbah a Moute earlier this season. Furthermore, Durant is a willing passer, and the Clippers can't effectively pressure Durant into turnovers.

Also, expect a big game from Enes Kanter because there's no way Cole Aldrich is a tenable basketball player. I refuse to believe it!

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 97, Los Angeles Clippers 93.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 61
@
42-18
(Won 1)

39-20
(Won 2)
March 2nd, 2016
The Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
9:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Entertainment Sports Programming Network, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Prime Ticket
Injury Report: Austin Rivers (Probable), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (Doubtful), Blake Griffin (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 22 (W 100-99)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Chris Paul
Andre Roberson SG J.J. Redick
Kevin Durant SF Paul Pierce
Serge Ibaka PF Jeff Green
Steven Adams C DeAndre Jordan