Clippers-Thunder preview: For the best record

Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The winner of this game will have the best record in the NBA, but the Clippers may be without Chris Paul who was visibly slowed by his sore knee in yesterday's loss to the Warriors.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season
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vs
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32-10

32-9
January 22nd, 2013, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center
Prime Ticket, NBA-TV, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Eric Bledsoe PG Russell Westbrook
Willie Green SG Thabo Sefolosha
Caron Butler SF Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan C Kendrick Perkins
Advanced Stats (thru games of 1/21)
92.0 (10th of 30) Pace 92.8 (8th of 30)
110.2 (4th of 30) ORtg 112.9 (1st of 30)
100.9 (5th of 30) DRtg 103.3 (7th of 30)
Injuries/Suspensions/Other
Chris Paul (knee) GTD
None
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out

Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

The Clippers lost in Oakland yesterday afternoon, but that's a minor concern. The bigger issue is Chris Paul's bruised kneecap. Paul played 33 minutes against the Warriors, scoring just four points and shooting 1-7. Worse still, he was limited defensively and couldn't really chase Golden State's shooters like he needed to. He was likely detrimental to the team's efforts Monday, and that's not just me talking: "Me being out there probably hurt us more than it helped us" -- Chris Paul. So now the Clippers come up against the league-leading Thunder in one of their only games in STAPLES Center in a month, and their best player will be a game time decision. That's unfortunate. It's especially unfortunate considering that in the first meeting between these two teams, back in November in Oklahoma City, Paul had one of the worst games of his career, shooting just 2-14, and the Clippers still had a chance to win at the buzzer before finally losing in overtime. Two games against the Thunder, one when Paul plays poorly and one where he doesn't play at all, would be a horrible break for the Clippers, but that's looking like a distinct possibility. The team did manage to blow out Memphis on the road without Paul, so it's by no means a lost cause if he decides to sit, but it's far from ideal.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder are who we thought they were. They lead the league in scoring more or less on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. When the Thunder beat Dallas in overtime last week, Durant had a career high 52, Westbrook had 31, and the rest of the team combined had 34. The amazing thing is even when you know that you have to stop those two guys, you can't do it. Durant/Westbrook are averaging a combined 52.5 points per game this season, far and away the highest scoring duo (James/Wade in Miami are at 46.4, Bryant/Howard of the Lakers 46.3). Durant/Westbrook never miss games, and they have accounted for 2151 of OKC's 4346 points this season, almost half of the team's total. By contrast, the Clippers two leading scorers, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford, are responsible for only one third of the Clippers total points. The Thunder play good defense, with specialists like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha on the floor, but they win with offense, and by and large the offense comes from Durant and Westbrook. So stop those guys and stop the Thunder. Of course, that's easier said than done.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers are fourth in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. The Thunder are first in offense and seventh in defense. No wonder they along with the Spurs (fifth in offense, third in defense) are in a class by themselves so far this season.
  • Paul in Oakland. Shortly after posting my recap of yesterday's Warriors game I got a call from my dad saying that I was far too diplomatic in my evaluation of Chris Paul's performance. He (and other citizens on the site as well) felt it was incredibly obvious that Paul should not have been playing. "Is Chris Paul on one leg better than Eric Bledsoe on two legs?" seemed to be the pertinent question. Of course the game was lost in the fourth quarter, and with the Warriors playing Jarrett Jack alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Del Negro played Bledsoe almost the entire fourth to match up with the small lineup. So the question wasn't replacing Paul with Bledsoe. With Curry and Jack responsible for 26 of the Dubs' 33 fourth quarter points, the real mistake was having Paul try to guard Jack. He needed to be out and Barnes needed to be on Jack. Of course, hindsight is 20-20. The unfortunate thing is that Grant Hill would have been very useful as a perimeter defender in that game, but he was held out to save him for tonight.
  • Back-to-back, sort of. As back-to-backs go, this isn't a bad one. The 1 PM tip on Martin Luther King's birthday in Oakland is over six hours earlier than a west coast evening tip. The Clippers were able to get back to L.A. and sleep in their own beds on a normal schedule. It makes a difference. The STAPLES Center will be nuts tonight, so I don't expect energy or fatigue to be a problem.
  • Best in the West. Two seasons ago, when the Clippers began the season 5-21 and then went 27-29 over the final four months, some of us wondered if they were on the OKC track, as the Thunder had had a very similar in-season improvement in 08-09 before winning 50 games and making the playoffs the following season. Trading for Chris Paul accelerated the Clippers rise, but overall it's been surprisingly similar in terms of results. With teams like the Mavericks and Lakers finally succumbing to effects of age, and a similar fate awaiting San Antonio eventually, it could be the Clippers and the Thunder battling for Western supremacy for many years to come. Few expected that battle to be waged this season already, but the Clippers got there a bit ahead of schedule.Young contenders like the Warriors and the Timberwolves would like to join the conversation eventually, and the Grizzlies and Nuggets were supposed to be close already. But the reality is that so far this season, the west belongs to the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs, and the future of the West, from what we can see right now, belongs to the Clippers and Thunder. The winner of this game will be alone atop the conference, at least for a day.
  • Tough stretch for OKC. The road trip the Thunder are currently on is probably there toughest of the season. It started in Dallas Friday where they needed overtime to beat the Mavs. It continued with another overtime game in Denver, this one a loss. After the Clippers tonight, they play the Warriors in Oakland tomorrow night on a back-to-back, and then close the six game trip with Sacramento and the Lakers, who while disappointing will still be dangerous. The Thunder have played an easier schedule than either the Clippers or the Spurs so far, but it they come out of this road trip still on top of the Western Conference, they will have convinced me that they are the team to beat in the West.
  • Beating the best. Although I don't really buy the MEMPHIS! talk, most analysts have the Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies and Clippers as the top four teams in the West. The Clippers are 4-1 against the other three teams in that group, with the only loss coming in overtime in OKC. With the exception of the Warriors who have beaten them three times now, the Clippers have come out on top in basically every really big game they've played this season. Given their track record in big games, I like the Clippers chances tonight, even if Paul can't play.
  • Bledsoe precedent. Who remembers the Clippers first win of Griffin and Bledsoe's rookie season? With Baron Davis and Randy Foye injured, a 20-year-old Eric Bledsoe was pressed into service as the starter against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Bledsoe responded with 17 points and 8 assists as the Clippers beat the Thunder by 15. The Clippers have had great success against the Thunder, beating them three of four last season and holding a 9-7 advantage in the history of the series since them team left Seattle. And it turns out, Bledsoe knows how to beat them as the starter as well.
  • Restbwook's woes. Wussell Restbwook has had some major struggles against the Clippers. In his career against the LAC, he's shooting .343 from the field, his worst shooting against any opponent. He has had games of 1-12, 1-11 and 3-14 among other dreadful outings against the Clippers. He's only scored 20 or more in four of 16 career games, and one of those was that 3-14 game where he got to the line a lot. The vast majority of his truly terrible outings have come here in L.A. Is it possible that Wussell presses too hard playing in his hometown? Who knows, but his poor play against the Clippers goes a long way to explaining the Clippers' success against the Thunder.
  • More on Wussell. At the end of the day, I have a big problem with Restbwook's play, or maybe my issue is with Scoot Brooks. Kevin Durant's effective field goal percentage is .567 while Restbwook's is .457. That's a huge difference. It's the difference between excellent shooting and pretty damn poor shooting. Yet Restbwook takes more field goal attempts than Durant. On a per game basis, Wussell hoists 18.9 shots compared to 18.5 for Durant. On a per 36 minute basis, the advantage is 18.7 to 16.8. Now Durant gets to the line a ton and that accounts for some additional scoring chances, but come on. If you have the leading scorer and one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA on your team and you also have a low efficiency scorer don't you have to make sure that the efficient scorer is getting more shots -- I mean a lot more shots? And it's not as if Durant is a post player where getting him touches is particularly difficult. Restbwook shoots too damn much, and Brooks let's him shoot too damn much. (Of course, it's hard to argue with success. The Thunder still have the most efficient offense in the NBA despite this. One wonders how good they'd be if they could get this disparity under control.)
  • KMart and the Clippers. Before there was Wussell Restbwook, OKC's sixth man Kevin Martin (especially back when he was with the Kings) used to famously struggle against the Clippers. Like Wussell, KMart shoots worse against the Clippers on his career (.384) than he does against any other team. Of course, there's no QRoss to stick on KMart tonight, but he's never played well against the LAC.
  • Minutes. The Thunder ride their stars very hard. Durant is second in the NBA in minutes per game at 39.7 and Restbrook play 36.4. Serge Ibaka plays 32.9. By contrast, the Clippers stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin play far less, 33.5 and 32.2 minutes per game respectively. Hopefully the lighter regular season workload will benefit the Clippers in the postseason, but Durant and Restbwook have been workhorses their whole careers and seem to handle it well.
  • Benches. Related to the minutes issue of course are the respective benches of the teams. The Clippers of course have played 10 men consistently all season, and have 11 or 12 deserving of minutes when everyone is healthy. The Thunder have two terrific reserves in Nick Collison and Kevin Martin, and there doesn't seem to be anyone else on the roster Brooks really trusts. Reggie Jackson is currently getting the backup point guard minutes that went to Eric Maynor earlier in the season, but in the OT loss in Denver Restbwook play 48 minutes and Jackson played 6. In that Denver game, the top seven played 276 of a possible 285 minutes.
  • Defending Durant. The main reason that Vinny Del Negro held Grant Hill out of the Golden State game was so that he'd be sure to have him against the Thunder. We already know that beating the Thunder is about stopping Durant and Westbrook (OK, primarily Durant) and the Clippers have some defenders for that task. In the meeting in Oklahoma City, Caron Butler and Hill were both hurt, leaving Matt Barnes as the only appropriate defender for Durant. Tonight, Butler (who played KD well last season) will get the assignment to begin the game, with Barnes and Hill waiting in the wings to take their turns. Del Negro should be able to keep a fresh defender on KD all night, and will also be able to switch picks and still cover him with guys who can hold their own for the remainder of a possession like Lamar Odom or Blake Griffin. If Hill still has it at the age of 40, these types of games are the reason the Clippers wanted him.
  • Connections. Blake Griffin was born and raised in Oklahoma near Oklahoma City and played his college ball at OU in Norman. Thunder coach Scoot Brooks was on the Clippers for about a month in January 1999, though he never got into a game. Eric Bledsoe was originally drafted by the Thunder and traded to the Clippers on draft day in 2010, one of the only times that OKC GM Sam Presti was bested on a draft day trade. Bledsoe played at Kentucky with OKC's Daniel Orton and DeAndre Liggins.
  • Get the OKC perspective at Welcome to Loud City.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Brain Damage -- Pink Floyd

    The lunatic is in my head
    The lunatic is in my head
    You raise the blade, you make the change
    You re-arrange me 'till I'm sane
    You lock the door
    And throw away the key
    There's someone in my head but it's not me.

    And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
    You shout and no one seems to hear
    And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes
    I'll see you on the dark side of the moon


    Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. That is all.
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