Clippers-Thunder preview: Losing streak

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers take a two game losing streak into Oklahoma City. They haven't lost three straight in the Doc Rivers era, but they'll have to play their best to avoid a loss to the Thunder.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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vs
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37-20

43-13
February 23rd, 2014, 10:00 AM
Chesapeake Evergy Arena
ABC, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
17-9 East 17-5
20-11 West 26-8
23-5 Home 23-4
14-15 Road 20-9
13-13 .500+ 17-7
24-7 .500- 26-6
5-5 L10 7-3
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Russell Westbrook
Jamal Crawford SG Thabo Sefolosha
Matt Barnes SF Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan C Steven Adams
Advanced Stats
97.99 (9th of 30) Pace 97.55 (11th of 30)
108.5 (3rd of 30) ORtg 107.2 (6th of 30)
102.2 (11th of 30) DRtg 99.4 (4th of 30)
Injuries/Other
J.J. Redick (hip) out
Kendrick Perkins (strained groin) out
Chris Paul (sprained thumb) in


The Back Story (The season series is tied, 1-1):

Date Venue Final

11/13/13 Los Angeles Clippers 111, Thunder 103 Recap Box
11/21/13 Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Clippers 91 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers have lost two games in a row since the All Star break. They haven't lost three straight under Doc Rivers -- but there's a first time for everything and Oklahoma City has the best record in the league and the best home record in the Western Conference so I'm not optimistic that they'll be able to halt the skid today. If they do hope to win, they're going to have to see Chris Paul emerge from a terrible shooting slump the past two games, and he'll have to overcome a sprained thumb to do so. They'll also have to hit some three pointers, which they haven't been able to do at all lately. In the six games J.J. Redick has been out of the lineup the team has shot just .318 from deep. The lion's share of the offense of late has been coming from Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford; they've been consistently good, but they really have to get some help. Paul will have to step up today, they'll have to hit some perimeter shots, and they'll need to get something -- anything -- from the second unit. If they don't get those things, the first three game losing streak of the season is inevitable.

The Antagonist:

I was wrong about the Thunder. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I thought they'd take a step back after losing Kevin Martin in the off-season, but instead they've withstood the loss of Martin AND the loss of Russell Westbrook for most of the season so far -- and if anything they've been better. In my defense, I didn't realize that Kevin Durant was going to become the perfect scoring machine. Kevin Durant is to scoring what the alien is to killing, only instead of acid he has ice water in his veins. The Thunder have used their length and quickness to play elite defense all season, and on offense they can always turn to Durant. Blake Griffin had an unbelievably productive January, but he never had a chance at Conference Player of the Month because Durant was so far off the charts. Durant averaged 36/6/6 on 55% shooting in January -- are you effing kidding me? The Thunder got Russell Westbrook back on Thursday, and although things didn't go well in his first game back, that probably had more to do with a motivated Heat team than with Westbrook. The Clippers can hope that the Thunder will struggle to integrate Westbrook back into the flow after playing so well with Reggie Jackson starting, but the bad news is that OKC will be looking to bounce back strong from their worst defeat of the season.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Thunder have the best claim to elite status on both sides of the ball this season going by efficiency numbers. They have the fourth best defense in the league, and the sixth best offense -- no other team is as high in both categories. The Clippers defense meanwhile has been sinking and is down to eighth.
  • Baby blues. The Clippers will be wearing their baby blue sleeved uniforms for the first time this season. I knew they wore them on Sundays, but I had assumed it was only Sunday home games. This is their only Sunday road game of the season, so I'm not sure if this is a one off or if the plan was to wear them on Sunday's regardless of location. I'm not crazy about light blue versus white -- not a lot of contrast out there -- but I'm not crazy about the unis in general, so whatever. The good news, if you're looking for it, is that two of the Clippers' most impressive wins of the season, including the annihilation of Philadelphia two weeks ago, have come in the baby blues. Of course that was Philadelphia and this is Oklahoma City.
  • Early start. NBA basketball at 10 AM Pacific time. Wow, that's early. I don't know about you, but my entire day could be made or ruined by just after noon. Not only do I have a Clippers game, but Tottenham plays at 8 AM. Spurs are three points behind Liverpool, who play at 6 AM. If the Reds win, and Spurs and Clippers lose, my entire day will be shot before I get off the couch. On the other hand, if things go right it could be the best day ever!
  • Free agent help. We know that the Clippers are already pursuing the new bought out Glen Davis and will try to sign other free agents to bolster their lineup for the stretch run. Oklahoma City will also look to add some veteran help. Danny Granger hasn't really been linked to the Thunder, but he would seem like a logical target for a team that could use a reliable scorer off the bench. It might not be Granger, but I would expect that the Thunder will add someone.
  • Shumpert. The Clippers considered trading for the very available Iman Shumpert at the trade deadline. Things became complicated when Shumpert injured his knee on Wednesday night before the Thursday deadline, but the Clippers and Knicks kept talking right until the last minute before the deal came through. The Thunder had shown some interest in acquiring Shumpert themselves, and in the aftermath, some have suggested that Doc Rivers had dragged out the discussion just to run out the clock and keep Shumpert away from OKC. But he wouldn't do that. Would he?
  • Westbrook back. All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook has missed 30 of Oklahoma City's 56 games so far this season -- but he hasn't missed any of their meetings with the Clippers. After coming back early from off-season knee surgery in time to play in two November meetings, Westbrook has again returned just in time from another knee surgery to face the Clippers. In his first game back, Thursday against the Miami Heat, Wussell looked pwetty wusty in shooting 4-12 in OKC's worst defeat of the season.
  • Bad loss. The fact that the Thunder suffered their worst loss of the season the last time out could be interpreted as good news or bad news for the Clippers, but I'm guessing it ain't good. Does it indicate that they'll be out of sync for a time as they integrate Westbrook back into the lineup? More likely they just ran into a Miami buzzsaw on Thursday, and they'll be extra focused to bounce back strong against the Clippers.
  • Perkins out. Coincidentally, Kendrick Perkins missed the first meeting of the season between these two teams way back in early November in L.A. and he'll miss this one also. He strained his groin Thursday against the Heat and will be out at least a week. Perkins isn't huge loss for the Thunder -- he's not exactly the most productive center in the league, more like the least productive -- but he is another big body. The game he missed in L.A. also saw Serge Ibaka ejected just before halftime, which left the Thunder woefully thin in the front court (Ryan Gomes started the second half at power forward!). Steven Adams will start in Perkins' place and Nick Collison is a solid backup as well. The Thunder may also go small some with Durant or Perry Jones at the four.
  • Ibaka and Griffin. Something about Blake Griffin definitely gets under Serge Ibaka's skin. Last season he picked up two flagrant fouls against Griffin, and in the first meeting this year he was ejected for an altercation just before halftime. The OKC fans will be on Griffin from the start, despite the fact that he's a hometown hero for them. Can Ibaka keep his cool against Griffin? Can Griffin be effective without getting into foul trouble himself? Bear in mind, this is Ibaka's first look at Griffin since he's stepped up his game in the past three months.
  • Paul. Chris Paul has made just 5-23 from the field since the All Star break, an unmitigated disaster for the Clippers in facing good teams. To make matters worse, he sprained his thumb at the very end of the Memphis game after everything had already been decided. He's going to play through the thumb injury, but who knows how much it will affect him, especially in addition to the residual soreness in his shoulder that seems to be bothering his shot right now. The Thunder have the best record in the NBA -- there is simply no way the Clippers can beat them on the road if Paul doesn't shoot well, so hopefully he can break out of his slump despite the nagging injuries.
  • Clippers bench. The Clippers bench has been just awful during J.J. Redick's latest injury absence. While Chris Paul was out, we tracked the Clippers' record without him, but perhaps we should be tracking the record without Redick (it's 16-11 by the way, far worse than their 12-6 record without CP3). I'm certainly not suggesting that Redick is better nor more important than Paul -- the schedule has had a lot to do with wins and losses during their respective absences of course -- but without Redick available the Clippers do seem to have their rotations sent into disarray. Darren Collison has been much better as a starter than as a reserve, while Jamal Crawford has been much better as a reserve than as a starter. When Redick is out, Crawford is starting and the bench more or less disappears -- especially when Collison is bad as he has been lately. The Clippers got just seven points from their reserves in Memphis Friday night. That's a disaster, but it's hard to imagine how things are going to be much different in Oklahoma.
  • The three ball. The Clippers are 27th in the NBA in three point percentage -- and that's with J.J. Redick. Without him things get far worse. When you consider that Rivers was constructing the team to feature the long ball prominently this has got to be far and away the biggest disappointment this season. As it happens, they've been much worse from deep than last season's team. Dudley is way off his career numbers, Barnes has been terrible, and Redick has missed almost half of the games. If they can make a few in Oklahoma City today -- and certainly it's a possibility -- it will make a huge difference.
  • OKC roster additions. This off-season the Thunder added three players to their roster: rookies Steven Adams and Andre Roberson and former Clipper Ryan Gomes (since waived) who played in Germany last season. That is to say, none of the OKC roster additions were actually in the NBA last season. It's a research project that is beyond my resources and patience, but I'd venture to guess that it's one of the first times since the advent of free agency that a team has entered the season without adding at least one player from a different NBA roster.
  • Sefolosha. Thabo Sefolosha has made a career of playing defense and hitting the open three pointers that inevitably come his way playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But after making .419 last season and .437 the season before that, he's way down to .336 this season. It's difficult to say whether this season or last season is the outlier.
  • Best in the West. Three 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 (though the Rockets and Warriors and Wolves and Suns and Blazers may have something to say about that -- man the West is tough).
  • Restbwook's woes. Wussell Restbwook has had some major struggles against the Clippers. In his career against the LAC, he's shooting .369 from the field in 20 games, his worst shooting against any Western Conference 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 six of 18 career games, and one of those was that 3-14 game where he got to the line a lot. He is a combined 12-31 in two meetings with the Clippers this season, which is actually a little above his career percentage against LA, believe it or not.
  • Defending Durant. Durant is simply a terrible matchup for each and every defender in the NBA -- that's a big part of what makes him so good. He's got the length of a seven footer, the quickness of a guard and scoring ability of a demi-god. No one can guard him; that's why he continually leads the league in scoring (he's leading by 3.5 points per game so far this season). Barnes is tough and will work hard, but has had a tough time staying in front of players this season; Dudley is smart and tenacious and we know he'll work hard. Both of these choices are less than ideal. In the last meeting, Blake Griffin took the assignment a couple of possessions, but it was probably rookie Reggie Bullock who did the best job. Now, that was a very small sample size and probably a fluke, but we may see Bullock out there to defend Durant some today.
  • Small ball. In the first meeting, the Clippers had a nice run over the final 14 minutes of the game playing mostly small ball. That was driven in part by the fact that Perkins missed the game and Ibaka missed the second half, so OKC didn't have quality bigs to call on which forced them to go small. The Thunder liked playing Durant at the four last season, but haven't done it as much this season, partly because Kevin Martin is gone so there's less incentive to get another small on the floor.
  • 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. The freshly departed Byron Mullens began his NBA career with the Thunder, where he barely played in his first two seasons in the league. Chris Paul played his first two seasons in Oklahoma City while the Hornets were displaced from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook were teammates at UCLA, where Collison started at the point pushing Westbrook to shooting guard. Doc Rivers coached Kendrick Perkins at Boston, where they won a title together and might have won another had Perkins not torn his ACL in the playoffs.
  • Get the OKC perspective at Welcome to Loud City.
  • Shakespearean reference:
    Macbeth -- Act IV, Scene 1 -- Macbeth
    Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
    But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
    And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
    That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
    And sleep in spite of thunder.
    [Thunder. Third Apparition: a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand]
    What is this
    That rises like the issue of a king,
    And wears upon his baby-brow the round
    And top of sovereignty?
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