Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Preview

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 3: Kevin Durant #32 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives past Ryan Gomes #15 of the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on November 3 2010 in Los Angeles California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

2010/2011 NBA Regular Season
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vs.
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21-35

35-19
Oklahoma City Arena
February 22nd, 2011, 5:00 PM
FSN Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Probable starters:
Baron Davis
PG Russell Westbrook
Randy Foye
SG Thabo Sefolosha
Ryan Gomes
SF Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin
PF Jeff Green
DeAndre Jordan
C Nenad Krstic

 

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

The All Star Break mercifully interrupted the Clippers' brutal road trip, but it resumes again tonight in Oklahoma City. The team has lost 6 out of 8 games on the trip, and 7 of 9 overall, putting an end to what had been a pretty nice run prior to the Odyssey. Whether the team can regain some of their mojo after the break remains to be seen. The single biggest thing they need to regain is Eric Gordon, and they won't be getting him back quite yet. He's not going on this trip, and is still about a week away from playing, according to Lisa Dillman. That would mean the Sacramento game next Monday night, or possibly Boston on Saturday. Blake Griffin's numbers have suffered some in February, particularly his shooting percentage - he's shooting 47.6% from the field this month, four points lower than his percentage coming into the month. Whether that's because of Gordon's absence, or because of constant double teams, or because he's wearing down, or because of a combination of factors, is hard to determine with any certainty. It however it was because of fatigue, his busy All Star Weekend didn't provide any relief. Baron Davis on the other hand has played his best basketball during the month of February, averaging 18 points and 8 assists per game. And while Gordon won't be back tonight, the team is getting some help in the form of Chris Kaman, who returned in the Clippers last game from what was essentially a three month absence. Kaman looked surprisingly good in 10 minutes in the win against Minnesota, and figures to get more minutes in his second game after another 6 days of rest. They will also have Craig Smith back in the lineup tonight, as Smith practiced yesterday for the first time since leaving the active roster with a herniated disk in his back. So the big man rotation, while still hampered by the conditioning and game readiness of Kaman and Smith, is getting close to full strength. Whether it will be enough against a tough Thunder team in Oklahoma City remains to be seen.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder were last year's surprise team and this year's darling going into the season. They're 35 and 19 at the All Star break, which would be good enough for a home game in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today, and they are four games ahead in the Northwest Division. And yet, it almost feels like the season to date has been a disappointment for the team. On their current pace, they would win 53 games, a 3 game improvement over last season, and I think a lot of people were expecting a bigger step. Based on their youth and the potential of their young superstars, not to mention their strong showing against the Lakers in the first round of last season's playoffs, many people were expecting them to be the single biggest threat to the Lakers this season. Especially given the huge strides made by Russell Westbrook, who is coming off his first All Star Game appearance in his third season, you might indeed expect the Thunder to have shown more improvement overall. So why aren't they better? In a word, defense. Last season they were surprisingly tough at the defensive end, and ranked 9th in the league in defensive efficiency allowing just 104.6 points per 100 possessions. This season they are below the league average, allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions, which is 16th in the league. The future remains nonetheless bright - in a superstar driven league, they have two of them. Westbrook and Kevin Durant average 51.1 points per game combined, the second highest scoring duo in the league, behind only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at 51.5. Durant and Westbrook are also each top 10 in PER. And they're each 22 years old. Scary.

The Subplots

  • No Rest for the Weary. I mentioned above that Blake Griffin had a busy weekend, but the demands on his time didn't end at the conclusion of the All Star Game. He was the first player in NBA history to participate in the three marquee events of the same All Star Weekend, the Rookie Challenge, Dunk Contest and All Star Game. He was also one of the most sought after interviews in LA, not to mention fulfilling sponsor obligations and other appearances. Then, after the game, he flew straight to Oklahoma to attend the funeral of his close friend, Wilson Holloway, who died last Wednesday of Hodgkin's lymphoma. And given that this is Griffin's first trip back to the city and state where he was born and raised and was a high school and college star, there will be hoards of press covering tonight's game and following his every step once again. And if all that weren't enough, the Clippers play in New Orleans tomorrow night, so he won't even have a day off between games.
  • Dynamic Duos. Although Eric Gordon isn't playing in this game, it's worth mentioning that the Clippers young duo of Gordon and Griffin, is statistically near the top of the league for teammates by some important measures. In points per game, the G-Men are third behind James/Wade and Durant/Westbrook at 46.8 points per game. By PER, they're the fifth best tandem in the league, with Bryant/Gasol and Rose/Boozer sneaking ahead of them, but better than Ginobili/Duncan and many other top tandems. That's elite company to be keeping. Oh, and by the way, Griffin and Gordon are each even younger than Durant and Westbrook. Which is the best young duo in the league? Most people would say Durant and Westbrook right now, but given the fact that Griffin is in his first year and figures to improve the most the fastest of the four, it could be an open question in the near future.
  • Under 23 Tournament.  If the NBA ever decided to hold a FIFA style U23 tournament, the Finals would likely feature the Clippers and the Thunder. The Clippers team of Eric Bledsoe, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (with Willie Warren coming off the bench) would be formidable, but you'd probably have to go with the Thunder, and Westbrook, James Harden, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Cole Aldrich (with Byron Mullens coming off the bench). That Clippers group is impressive, and the first five have logged major minutes this season, and even started together for a string of games early in the season. But with two All Stars and two members of the Sophomore team from the Rookie Challenge, the Thunder appear to have the better resume at this point. Minnesota and Sacramento could also field teams in our imaginary U-23 tournament.
  • What to do with Green? When the Sonics traded away Ray Allen for Jeff Green, the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, they were obviously giving up a lot. After all, Allen has only won a championship, made three more All Star teams, and set the all time record for career three pointers made since that trade. For the first two seasons he was in the league, Green was touted as a key piece in OKC's future, along with Durant and Westbrook. But the numbers never really justified the hype, and this season it's really beginning to show. Never a good shooter, he's shooting worse this season (43.7%). Never a good rebounder, he's rebounding worse this season (5.6 per game). Among 130 players 6'9" or greater who have averaged at least 12 minutes per game this season, Green is 124th in rebounds per 36 minutes - and the six guys behind him all player small forward or shooting guard. He is BY FAR the worst rebounding power forward in the league - unless you count Hedo Turkoglu. He'll be a restricted free agent this summer, and the Thunder would be wise to let him walk.
  • While We're On the Subject. Thunder GM Sam Presti is the new golden boy of NBA front office execs. He can seemingly do no wrong. But is that really true? Dealing away Allen (while also letting Rashard Lewis walk) was part and parcel of the remaking if the Sonics/Thunder, but imagine if they'd kept Allen. Green has failed to live up to his lottery position, and Allen clearly had several years left. Of course, these counterfactuals are always problematic - the Sonics had to suck badly enough in 2007-2008 to ensure that they'd get Westbrook with the fourth pick of the 2008 draft, and they were still bad enough to get Harden third in 2009. But the Allen trade looks like a big mistake at this point, no matter how you slice it. Or maybe Green was just the wrong pick. How would Joakim Noah look next to Durant and Westbrook? My point is, Presti is certainly good, but he's not infallible. Like golden boys Joe Dumars and Kevin Pritchard before him, if he does this long enough, he'll make plenty of mistakes.
  • First meeting. The Clippers won handily when they met the Thunder in LA way back in early November. It was LA's first win of the season, and they're only win in their first 14 games. Durant was off in that game, shooting just 6 for 24 overall (0 for 10 from deep) while scoring a season low 16 points. Ryan Gomes' defense may have had something to do with it, but don't expect Durant to have another game like that - he'll be motivated to avenge his worst performance of the season. LA was without Baron Davis in that first meeting, so the good news is that Baron's back. The bad news is that their leading scorer in the first game was Gordon, who will not be in this one.
  • Battle of the Beards. Since DeShawn Stevenson shaved, Baron Davis and James Harden must surely have the biggest beards in the NBA. Does anyone else even come close? Does anyone else even have a full beard?
  • Bledsoe. Eric Bledsoe had probably his best game as a pro against the Thunder, in what was only his second start. He went for 17 points and 8 assists, and on several occasions took the ball end-to-end against the Thunder. Bledsoe matches up well with Westbrook, who may be too quick and athletic for Baron, his fellow UCLA alum, albeit from a decade before. Bledsoe has played better lately after slumping badly for a time. Hopefully he's on the rise again, because the Clippers will need him tonight.
  • Speaking of Bledsoe. I just have to bring this tidbit to everyone's attention. In the Fantasy Spin section of ESPN.com's player profile on Bledsoe, it contains this bit of expert analysis following the game in New York: "Bledsoe seemed to benefit from twin DNPs to Brian Cook and Al Thornton, both of who generally receive at least some time." Now, I'm not sure how a 6'0" point guard benefits from a DNP for a stretch four, but obviously that's not the biggest problem with that particular item. Sheesh.
  • Bledsoe and Westbrook.  On the surface, there are some similarities between Bledsoe and Westbrook.  Both played shooting guard in college but were drafted to play the point.  Both are explosive athletes.  And both, you'll recall, were drafted by Oklahoma City.  If Bledsoe can become even a reasonable approximation of Westbrook, the Clippers will have done well to draft him.  Bear in mind that Westbrook was a turnover machine his first two seasons in the league, and continues to have issues taking care of the ball - that's another area where Bledsoe will be like Westbrook.
  • Big rotation. It's going to be awhile before the dust settles, especially considering that both Chris Kaman and Craig Smith will be rounding back into shape, but it will be interesting to see what happens with coach Vinny Del Negro's big man rotation now that he has everyone available. He was going with essentially three bigs (Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Ike Diogu) for a long time. As well as Jordan has played, he might be tempted to give the vast majority of minutes to Griffin, Kaman and Jordan, but that assumes he's comfortable playing Kaman and Jordan together. Smith and Diogu replicate each other a bit, so they would seem to be an either/or choice - both are undersized; Smith is probably a little better scorer, but Diogu is a little longer and hence a better defender and rebounder. Finally, there's Brian Cook, who can play a role coming off the bench to stretch defenses when needed.
  • Charity.  One key to beating the Thunder is keeping them off the line. Durant and Westbrook are first and third in the league in free throws made per game.
  • Three point shooting.  The Thunder are 24th in the league in three pointers made this season, and 27th in percentage. That hopefully bodes well for the Clippers, who tend to have better success against teams that struggle from deep. Durant is down to 34% this season after shooting 42% a couple of seasons ago. Including KD in the Three Point Shootout this weekend was kind of a joke, and he responded with 5 makes out of 25 shots in the contest, and number that I think I would beat most any day of the week. He's still taking over 5 per game. James Harden is almost the only guy you really have to worry about on the perimeter (Daequan Cook barely plays).
  • The future for OKC.  The Thunder are in a great position, and are widely cited as the new blueprint for young teams, including the Clippers of course.  But let's bear in mind that they haven't been out of the first round of the playoffs yet.  Yes, they won 50 games last season, with an incredibly young lineup that appears to have plenty of room for continued improvement.  But they also did it with uncanny health all season long, as their three leading scorers did not miss a single game, and their starters missed a combined total of six.  It will also be interesting to see how they handle second contracts - it's really easy to build a team with draft picks, because they're cheap and the salary cap is a non-issue.  But when those guys reach year five (as Durant and Green do next season, and Westbrook the year after that), you have to start making some tough decisions, particularly against the reality of an NBA payroll in small market Oklahoma City.  Reupping Durant was a no-brainer, as will be Westbrook next year.  Green on the other hand is a much tougher call, and I assume that Sam Presti will not want to commit too much to him.  Ibaka and Harden are nice pieces, but the team still has a decided lack of quality size.
  • Uncanny Health. The Thunder haven't been quite as healthy this season as last, but almost. Westbrook has yet to miss a game as a pro. Durant has only missed four games this season,  No one on their roster has missed more than 9 games this season due to injury. Three of the Clippers top four players have missed 14 (Davis), 15 (Gordon) and 45 (Kaman).
  • Superstar for one game: Serge Ibaka.  I first saw this guy in the 2009 Summer League, and he was just terrible.  But he has emerged as a real force for the Thuder - athletic, long, talented, amazing.  I'm not sure why they don't go ahead and start him at center over Krstic. He could have won almost any other dunk contest in recent memory with his performance Saturday, but couldn't even advance in a very competitive field.
  • Famous Quotation: 

    Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
    Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
    There is not even silence in the mountains
    But dry sterile thunder without rain

    T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
  • Get the Thunder perspective at Welcome to Loud City.
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