The Back Story:
First meeting of the season. Clippers won the season series last year 3-1 (first time I've written that this year - it didn't happen much).
The Big Picture:
The Clippers found out yesterday that they'll be without Eric Gordon for at least 10 days, and tonight they'll get another taste of what life without EJ is like. The first time was not a lot of fun. The Clippers have lots of experience playing without key players the last few years, but of course that's not particularly unusual in the NBA. If Houston can win games while missing a couple of guys making $20M each, shouldn't the Clippers be able to win while missing a couple of 20 year old kids? Heck, Sacramento is winning without Kevin Martin, and he's all they had. CMDsr has said, in a sort of a backhanded insult, that the knock on him is that he can't win when his players are hurt. It's a way of innoculating himself against criticism for the debacle of the last two seasons - but it's not an acceptable position. The Clippers are probably staring at six more games without Gordon, and a dozen without Griffin, and who knows who else will go down in the interim. But this stretch of the schedule is exacly when the Clippers need to make headway, against a bunch of non-playoff teams. If the attitude going in is, "Too bad we don't have our guys, at least nobody expects us to win" then of course they won't. Besides, all of the players in the Clippers starting lineup were full time starters last year, so there's no reason they can't win this game. They'll need a big game and leadership from Baron Davis, and another big game from Chris Kaman.
Oklahoma City lost in Sacramento last night in a game that came down to the buzzer. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green all played big minutes in that one, so the Clippers caught a break there. The Thunder have been pretty solid so far this season. Until tonight, their losses had come against good teams, and they've mostly been close, including taking the Lakers into Overtime. Nonetheless, after winning their first two games of the season, they've lost four out of five. The Thunder are the only team the Clippers beat three times last season - but all those good memories were completely washed away by the 41 point beatdown they put on the Clippers in the final game of the season, on LA's Fan Appreciation Night. I for one did not appreciate it. Kevin Durant has become one of the toughest players in the league to defend, and Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook have talent. But it seems to me these guys are still a couple years away from competing.
- Playoff hopefuls? Of the six Western Conference teams under .500 last season, most analysts picked either the Clippers or the Thunder to have the best chance to break into the post-season if two or more of the over .500 teams stumbled. How they play against each other in two games over the next five days will be a good indicator of which one of these teams is closer to being ready.
- Defending Durant. I watched much of the Kings-Thunder on NBA League Pass Broadband tonight (NBALP is a good thing, and the league was nice enough to provide if for the SBNation basketball group, which is a nice perk of this gig). Andres Nocioni did a good job on Durant, crowding him and playing him physically - and the guy still went for 37, including 18 for 18 from the line. Who on the Clippers will get this assignment? Will it be Butler or Thornton? I assume it will be Butler, as it was on Rudy Gay on Saturday. But I'm concerned that neither of them can actually defend the guy. Is it time for a Mardy Collins sighting? Mardy at least has the mean streak that I think you need in order to bother Durant some.
- Westbrook. Russell Westbrook had been shooting much better in his first six games (almost 49%) than he did last season (under 40%). But when I watched him tonight, he struggled as much as ever to make shots, going 3 for 13 in the game and missing several makeable shots down the stretch that might have changed the outcome of the game. He also had a problem with turnovers last year, and there he's continued to have issues, averaging 5 a game to start the season. But he's a spectacular athlete, with amazing quickness. You can see why people like him - every time you watch him, he does something impressive. But he needs to figure out how to help his team win.
- Litmus Test for Advanced Stats. During the pre-season, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop caused a mini-stir by posting about the fact that Kevin Durant's plus/minus numbers were actually among the worst on his team, despite his phenomenal scoring and PER. We've discussed some of the issues with plus/minus - it's a flawed metric at best. Nonetheless, there's something there. Certainly Durant's defense during his first two seasons was poor to non-existent, and he'll need to improve there. It's also possible that his Thunder do more standing around and watching when he's on the floor, just expecting that he'll take the shot. Truthfully, I don't know what to think about the plus/minus enigma of Durant. But I'll tell you this - if Kevin Durant gets in foul trouble tonight and has to come out of the game, I'll be happy, not sad.
- Front court. Depending on how he handles the inevitable double teams, Chris Kaman should really have his way tonight. Nenad Krstic has never been known for his defense, Jeff Green is undersized at the four, and there aren't any bigs on the Thunder bench to slow him either (Etan Thomas, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison). Hopefully Mr. Flippy has been banished again after his second-half appearance on Monday, because we need Kaman 3.0 tonight, and I don't see anyone on the Oklahoma City roster who can slow him down one-on-one. On the other hand, Jeff Green is not the kind of matchup Marcus Camby likes.
- UCLA Point Guards. Baron Davis and Russell Westbrook played at UCLA, about 8 years apart. Baron doesn't seem to have the explosive athleticism anymore that Westbrook thrives on, but Baron has shown flashes this year of his old self. This game may turn on who gets the better of the point guard matchup.
- Butler and Thornton. Rasual Butler supplanted Al Thornton as the Clippers' starting small forward after four games, but two things are clear; (1) they're both starting now in the absence of Gordon and (2) neither one of them has been particularly good. Thornton is shooting 37% on the season; Butler 39%. Thornton's PER is 8; Butler's is 9. Both of these guys need to start playing well if the Clippers are going to have a chance in games without Eric Gordon. The most telling stat about Thornton is this: other than Kareem Rush, who has yet to score this season, Thornton is averaging the fewest points per minute of any Clipper this season. This is a guy whose raison d'être is scoring. He's never done it particularly efficiently, but he's always done it. His confidence is clearly shot right now, and he needs to find it. He knows he's in the lineup for the next six games. Maybe that will take the pressure off and he can play some basketball.
- Some good injury news for a change. Craig Smith took a finger in the eye during the fourth quarter of the Hornets game, sort of typifying the Clippers night. He got a cut on his eye, but it's not too bad, and although he sat out practice yesterday, he should be available to play tonight.
- Shaun Livingston. Our old pal Shaun Livingston is on the Thunder, but he's only played 20 minutes of garbage time on the season. He wasn't even on the active list last night. I really thought that he was going to be able to help this team. Perhaps he's not 100% recovered yet. Perhaps he won't ever be the player he was. Perhaps he was never as good as the idea of him in the first place.
Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shoulders... burning with the fires of Orc.
- Get the Thunder perspective at Welcome to Loud City.