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Preview: Thunder might not receive best effort from Clippers

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Because standings are silly.

When you see it....
When you see it....
W. Bennett Berry

This game finds both the Thunder and Clippers in a very interesting situation. The Thunder are four losses above the Clippers in the Western Conference standings, with seven games left to play. If the Clippers won tonight, they'd have to win out while the Thunder went .500 to have a shot at taking the third seed. In other words, not likely.

However, the Thunder could virtually seal the third seed tonight with a victory. That might be why Billy Donovan decided to sit Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka against the Pistons on Sunday. With a little bit on the line and a day of rest, I'd expect to see Ibaka and Durant back on the court tonight. The Thunder will still need a couple of wins to wrap up the three seed for good.

UPDATE: The Clippers will sit Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick tonight.

Will Chris Paul play? Does winning matter for the Clippers?

The Clippers, on the other hand, are one game short of having superstar Blake Griffin return to the team. The Clippers have been solvent without Griffin, but are undoubtedly a better team when he's on the floor. But with Griffin out tonight, the Clippers will be at a significant disadvantage. The Thunder built a 22 point lead in their first game against the Griffin-less Clippers, and won their second game against the non-Griffin Clippers by 12. Furthermore, the Clippers will be on the second end of a back-to-back, having faced the Timberwolves in Minneapolis last night.

That's not to say that these Clippers should be dismissed. They still have Chris Paul, and any team with Paul will have an efficient offense. But Paul's shooting percentages have suffered without Griffin creating space for him. And it's possible that Paul won't play at all. Here's how Clipper Steve of Clips Nation feels about the issue:

I'm really not a fan of the Popovichian strategy of resting perfectly healthy players for various reasons, but the benefits of prioritizing the postseason over the regular season are undeniable. Given the importance of Chris Paul in any scenario in which the Clippers advance beyond the second round in May, having him as fresh and healthy as possible at that time is crucial. Not to mention that Tony Allen is likely to dish out some abuse on Paul in the first round, abuse that may or may not include kicks to the head.

Now obviously, Paul has to play with Griffin for the Clippers to accomplish any part of their first priority, establishing some sort of rhythm for their reintegrated starting/closing unit. Remember, Griffin was hurt seven weeks before the Clippers traded for Jeff Green, so this group has literally yet to play a game together. Even Paul Pierce's injury is a factor in this calculus, albeit a minor one, given that the teams' best post-season rotation wouldn't feature Pierce, a point probably lost on Doc Rivers.

So the final nine games will be a balancing act -- play Griffin and Paul together a lot, but then sit Paul a lot also. Oh, and Thursday in Oklahoma City, the last game without Griffin, might be a great time to give CP3 a full night off.

It seems that the Clippers don't think much of their chances to grab the three seed, nor do they see the benefit of going all out for the three seed. The column made it seem like the Clippers are almost resigned to their second round fate. I, for one, will be glad to see the Spurs in the second round rather than the Warriors. Sure, the Clippers will arguably get an easier opponent in the banged up Grizzlies. But the Thunder should be able to handle whomever they get in the first round, and it will be nice to get a slightly less brutal second round opponent.

It's interesting that Jeff Green's integration with the lineup is still considered a priority. Paul Pierce is a proven playoff presence, but it's undeniable that Green is more effective as a defender and rebounder. Jeff Green never seemed to find a place in Oklahoma City, and has struggled to do so at every stop since. The duality of Jeff Green has been no more evident than in his two games against the Thunder this season. On March 2nd, Green was 0-7 from the field and had 0 points. On March 9th, Green was 10 of 13 from the field for 23 points. Who knows which Jeff Green will show up tonight?

How it went last time, and how it'll go this time

The Thunder's first game against the Griffin-less Clippers needs no re-hashing. The Thunder's 22 point fourth quarter collapse has been re-hashed and debated to death. But here's how WTLC's Brandon Jefferson described the Thunder's victory over the Clippers on March 9th:

However, after halftime the Thunder regained the swagger they had played with to begin the game and after 12 minutes built the lead back up to 10. With the whole world quoting the stat that OKC has blown 10 games when entering the fourth quarter with a lead, all eyes were looking to see if Russ and KD could hold on. In the postgame interview with ESPN, Durant had this to say about how the team was able to finish strong this time: "[Just] control the things that we can control and we'll win. We gave them that last game tonight we took it." Durant was definitely in control and it was his five points and assist to Roberson with a little over two minutes left that sealed the game for the Thunder tonight.

...

The Thunder finished the game with 33 assists--the Warriors for comparison's sake average 29 assists per game--and five players with double-digit scoring performances (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Kanter and Roberson).

The great play of Ibaka and Kanter should tell you a lot. The Clippers don't have any intimidating size off of their bench, with Cole Aldrich being not an effective counter for Kanter. Meanwhile, Ibaka will possess a size advantage on whomever the Clippers throw on him, until Griffin enters the game. Durant is successfully matched by Mbah a Moute, but there's no Westbrook stopper on the Clippers. Assuming Westbrook's shot is on today, this should be a relatively comfortable victory.

The Thunder have to be angry about how Reggie taunted them at the end of the Detroit game, so I'm expecting some fire tonight. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see anybody rested.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 121, Los Angeles Clippers 109.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 76
@
47-27
(Won 4)

52-23
(Lost 1)
March 30th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
8:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Turner Network Television Only
Injury Report: Blake Griffin (Out), Paul Pierce (Out), Branden Dawson (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 22 (W 100-99), Mar 2 (L 98-103), Mar 9 (W 120-108)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Chris Paul
Andre Roberson SG J.J. Redick
Kevin Durant SF
Serge Ibaka PF Luc Richard Mbah A Moute
Steven Adams C DeAndre Jordan