Clippers-Thunder preview: No brooms allowed

Harry How

Make no mistake, this is a big game. With a win over Oklahoma City today the Clippers can move into second place in the Western Conference and avoid a season series sweep against the Thunder.

2012/2013 NBA Regular Season
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vs
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43-18

42-16
March 3rd, 2013, 12:30 PM
STAPLES Center
Prime Ticket, NBA-TV, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Russell Westbrook
Chauncey Billups SG Thabo Sefolosha
Caron Butler SF Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan C Kendrick Perkins
Advanced Stats (thru games of 3/2)
91.7 (17th of 30) Pace 93.8 (8th of 30)
109.5 (7th of 30) ORtg 112.8 (2nd of 30)
102.1 (5th of 30) DRtg 102.8 (8th of 30)
Injuries/Suspensions/Other
Trey Thompkins (knee) out
None

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

The Clippers have won eight of their last nine games, a run of success that coincided with the return of Chris Paul to the lineup. However, each of their last two losses have come in ugly fashion against two of the elite teams of the NBA, the Heat and the Spurs. This afternoon the third of the big three, gets its chance when the Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Clippers. If the Clippers want to compete for a title this season, the road is undoubtedly going to lead through the Thunder, Spurs and Heat, so L.A. is going to have to beat these teams to get where they want to go. May as well start today. The Clippers have beaten 27 of the other 29 NBA teams this season, and the Thunder is the only team to hold a 2-0 series lead (Brooklyn has won the only meeting so far between the teams). OKC has already clinched the season series between the teams since this is the final meeting, but the Clippers would dearly love to avert the sweep. Not only will it boost their confidence should the teams meet in the playoffs, this also happens to be a huge game in the standings. A Clipper victory would move L.A. a half game ahead of OKC for second place in the Western Conference, with the teams in a virtual dead heat by winning percentage. If the first round of the playoffs holds to form, then the two seed and three seed will meet each other in the second round, with the two seed holding the home court advantage, so the difference between second and third is crucial.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder are terrific. They have an almost unstoppable offense, and their defense is very good as well. They have the best average point differential in the league by quite a bit, almost a full point better than San Antonio. It's no secret why the Thunder are so good. They have an MVP candidate, an All-NBA point guard, one of the best shot blockers in the league, a Sixth Man Award candidate and a couple of great role players. They aren't especially deep, but they don't have to be since no one on the team ever gets hurt. The Thunder are incredibly dependent on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to generate offense -- their other three starters are essentially non-scorers, though both Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka are great at hitting the spot up jumpers that come from all of the attention defenses dedicate to Durant and Westbrook. So the key to stopping the Thunder is keeping Durant and Westbrook under wraps, which is of course easier said than done. Durant is working on his fourth consecutive scoring title, and the two of them together average almost 52 points per game, more than any other pair of teammates and about half of OKC's points.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers had a great game against Cleveland, scoring 105 points and improving their offensive efficiency in the process. Unfortunately, they actually fell further behind San Antonio (who scored 130 against the Kings) and Denver (105 against the Thunder). It's tough to make much headway when their are so many talented offensive teams in the league.
  • Big game. In an 82 game season, it's difficult for any single game to be too important. If you lose one one game there's another one coming soon enough and you can try to win that one to make up for the prior loss. But every so often a game rises above the din of the incessant schedule, and this is one such game. The Clippers want to avoid a sweep certainly (see below) but it goes beyond that. Chasing the Thunder for the second seed in the West and with the first seed possibly back in play the Clippers can strike a double blow by giving themselves and win while handing the Thunder a loss. An L.A. puts the Clippers a half game up in the standings while a loss has the Thunder 1.5 games ahead. Yes, it's still one out of 82 games, but it's a big one.
  • For what it's worth. If you're curious, if the Clippers were to win today their record would be 44-18 while the Thunder would be 42-17. The Clippers would technically hold a half game lead for second place but OKC would still be a game ahead in the very important loss column. In terms of winning percentage, OKC would be ever so slightly better, .712 to .710.
  • Avoiding the sweep. You never want to be swept by an opponent. The Clippers will probably meet in the playoffs and the specter of a regular season sweep would hang over a playoff series between the teams. The Clippers won 3 of 4 against the Thunder last season and there's no reason that can't beat them now. Hopefully L.A. will be incredibly motivated to do so, if only so that they can avoid the embarrassment of losing all three to the Thunder this season.
  • ABC game. For the second time this season (and the second time in history for that matter) the Clippers are playing on ABC in the national TV game on Sunday. The Clippers have had a great record in national TV games this season (though they have cooled off a bit lately) and they had a good road win against New York the last time they were on ABC. Hopefully the national TV aspect of this game will provide an extra layer of energy for the Clippers.
  • OKC's fatal flaw? As good as the Thunder have been, it's possible that they have been padding their gaudy team stats by beating up on weaker competition while struggling a bit against the better teams. Their record against winning teams is a rather pedestrian 15-12, significantly worse than the Clippers own 20-11 record. Even more problematic for them, they've won only a single road game against winning teams since January 1 -- and that win came against the Clippers playing without Paul, which barely qualifies as a winning team. The Thunder absolutely destroy bad teams -- but against top competition, especially on the road, they are beatable.
  • Paul and the Thunder. In two games between the Clippers and the Thunder this season, Chris Paul went 2-14 in the first and didn't play in the second. It's no wonder the Clippers are 0-2 against OKC. By the same token, there's no reason to be too concerned of the Thunder as a playoff opponent knowing that Paul has been a non-factor in the first two games. The Thunder are a great team and will certainly be a difficult playoff opponent -- but the fact that they've beaten the Clippers twice this season has everything to do with Paul's ineffectiveness/absence and assuming he plays well against them, things should be very different.
  • Sefolosha. The Thunder do have the luxury of being able to put a very effective and very long defender on Paul in Thabo Sefolosha. One major factor in the game may be how physical the refs allow Sefolosha to get with Paul. If they call it close and force Sefolosha to keep his hands off Paul, it will be advantage Clippers, but if he's allowed to crowd Paul it will be advantage Thunder. Honestly, I doubt it will matter though. After going 2-14 in the last game and looking at an 0-2 deficit to the Thunder on the season, I can't imagine Paul having a less than great game today.
  • 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 the 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 may be close already. But the reality is that 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.
  • Beating the best. The Clippers began the season consistently beating all of the top teams. They won their first two games against the Spurs, won their first meeting with the Heat and have beaten the Grizzlies twice. However they've lost their last three games against the big three, each by double figures. It's a disturbing trend that the team needs to reverse today. Early in the season, the Clippers performance against the best teams in the league seemed to speak in favor of their status as a contender, but lately it's been an argument against them.
  • Last meeting. The last time these teams met the Thunder made 15-27 from behind the three point arc. Durant was 5-6. They made six straight in the third quarter, and then after the Clippers began to close the gap, made five straight in the fourth. Among their makes were a Durant bank shot and a Westbrook shot that hit the front of the iron and bounced about 10 feet in the air before dropping through. Durant will get his threes -- he'll make you pay one way or the other, and he's bound to get some open looks. But the Clippers need to limit the three pointers for the rest of the team. OKC shoots over 39% from deep, third best in the league.
  • Restbwook's woes. Wussell Restbwook has had some major struggles against the Clippers. In his career against the LAC, he's shooting .352 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 five of 17 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? It didn't seem to affect him last time, when he scored 26, but he's had his struggles with the Clippers.
  • More on Wussell. The last time the Clippers played the Thunder I pointed out that Westbrook takes more field goal attempts than Durant on a per game basis, despite the fact that Durant has significantly higher shooting percentages. Since that meeting, the disparity has actually grown, with Westbrook increasing his shots per 36 minutes slightly to 18.9 while Durant's have decreased slightly to 16.7. It's really, really difficult to justify Westbrook taking more than two additional shots over Durant when Durant is one of the most efficient scorers in the league while Westbrook's efficiency is mediocre at best. Frankly, OKC could be better than they are if they would address this rather simple problem.
  • Minutes. The Thunder ride their stars very hard. Durant is second in the NBA in minutes per game at 38.6, Restbrook plays 35.6 and Serge Ibaka plays 31.9. Bear in mind that those numbers aren't even representative of what happens in close games. The Thunder win a lot of blowouts and the starters can rest more in those, but against Denver Friday night Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Sefolosha all played between 37 and 40 minutes. By contrast, the Clippers stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin play far less, 32.6 and 32.4 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.
  • Derek Fisher. Like a bad penny, former Laker Derek Fisher just won't go away. For the third time in his career, and the second time at his request for "family reasons" Fisher has re-appeared with a major contender after having his prior contract voided. Fisher signed earlier this season with the Mavericks and Dallas owner Marc Cuban was none too happy to see Fisher sign with a division rival after being told back in December that Fisher wanted to leave the team to spend more time with his family. It's insignificant in the big picture, as Fisher is a non-factor on the court at the age of 38 after taking most of the year off, but it does seem strange that this keeps happening.
  • Defending Durant. The Clippers have Caron Butler, Matt Barnes and Grant Hill to tag team Durant. Last game it didn't matter a bit, as Durant torched the Clippers for 32 points on 19 shots and also handed out seven assists, many of them for open threes.
  • 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:

    Solar Dip -- Throwing Muses

    Everybody's soaking wet, ready for the solar dip
    It was so easy to fly,
    It was so easy to fly
    Thunder in the blue sunshine
    When did this city die?
    I'm sick of turning you off
    I'm sick of turning you off


    I can't believe I waited until three-fourths of the way through the season to get a Throwing Muses song into one of these previews. I adore Throwing Muses. I love the energy in Kristen Hersh's vocals, I love the nontraditional rhythms, I love the guitar -- I love it all. If you aren't familiar with Throwing Muses go buy The Real Ramona. Do it now.
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