Clippers-Thunder preview: The two seed in play

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers still have a outside shot at the second seed, but only if they beat the Thunder tonight and take the season series.

2013/2014 NBA Regular Season
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55-23

56-21
April 9th, 2014, 7:30 PM
STAPLES Center
ESPN, Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown
21-9 East 22-6
34-14 West 33-15
32-6 Home 32-7
23-17 Road 24-14
29-16 .500+ 29-16
26-7 .500- 27-5
7-3 L10 7-3
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Russell Westbrook
J.J. Redick SG Thabo Sefolosha
Matt Barnes SF Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan C Kendrick Perkins
Advanced Stats
98.33 (6th of 30) Pace 98.07 (9th of 30)
109.5 (1st of 30) ORtg 107.9 (7th of 30)
101.8 (7th of 30) DRtg 100.8 (5th of 30)
Injuries/Other
Jamal Crawford (Achilles) out
None
Danny Granger (hamstring) out


The Back Story (The Clippers lead the season series 2-1):

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
02/23/14 Oklahoma City Clippers 125, Thunder 117 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers may or may not be able to catch the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But they certainly can not do it without a victory in the final meeting of the regular season between the two teams tonight. An OKC win in this one would give them a three game lead in the loss column, while also tying the season series and bring other tie-breakers into play. It wouldn't clinch second for the Thunder -- but it would come pretty close. A Clippers win on the other hand makes things VERY interesting. It would reduce the gap in the loss column to a single game while at the same time clinching the season series for the Clippers and giving them the potentially crucial tie-breaker. At that point, just one more loss from the Thunder the rest of the way would give LA the second seed -- provided the Clippers can themselves win out. With OKC having a road game in Indiana still on their schedule, not to mention two more sets of back-to-backs, the odds are that the Thunder are not going to win their final five games. So the two seed would definitely be in play. Even if the Clippers can't catch OKC for the two seed, a win tonight is important, as these two teams are likely to see each other in the Western Conference semifinals, regardless of who is the two seed and who is the three seed. A 3-1 regular season series win would give the Clippers a lot of confidence in a playoff series. The Clippers have the advantage of being home (where they are a Conference best 32-6 this season) and rested (LA hasn't played since Sunday afternoon while the Thunder played in Sacramento last night).

The Antagonist:

The Thunder have been a bit enigmatic this season. I believed all along that they'd take a step back with the loss of Kevin Martin, let alone the unexpectedly prolonged absence of Russell Westbrook. However, the utter brilliance of Kevin Durant has kept them from backsliding, even though the rest of the supporting cast has been pretty mediocre. Reggie Jackson has played a lot more minutes -- but has been just slightly about average in those minutes, and is actually shooting a lower percentage than he did last season. Serge Ibaka's PER is identical to last season and his shooting percentages are down. A lot was expected of Jeremy Lamb, but he's been at best mediocre. This is a team that tends to play Derek Fisher (39) and Caron Butler (33) in crunch time, a team that still can't play Westbrook in back-to-back games. So how is that they have the second best record in the NBA? Kevin Durant is that good. Strangely, they've struggled a bit more since Westbrook returned from his latest injury. The obvious key to beating the Thunder is to stop Durant (while finding ways to score against their very solid defense); forcing Westbrook to shoot instead of Durant is one way to do that.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. Going by efficiency numbers, the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder are the three best teams not just in the West but in the NBA.
  • Starting lineups in tact. The Clippers and Thunder have something in common -- they each have their preferred starting lineups in tact for the first time in a while. Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Russell Westbrook have all been injured for the Thunder, while J.J. Redick and before him Chris Paul have been out for the Clippers. The fivesome the Clippers will start tonight started together for the first time this season Sunday afternoon against the Lakers. As for the Thunder, Sefolosha returned to action last night in Sacramento, and their familiar starting five will take the floor together for the first time since February 20th, and only the second time since Christmas Day. That is assuming that Scott Brooks decides to play Sefolosha in a back-to-back.
  • Last meeting. When these teams last met on February 23rd in Oklahoma City, the Clippers were had lost two in a row and had yet to win after the All Star break. Not only did they once again avoid a three game losing steak, they also entered their hottest stretch of the season, as that win launched an 11 game winning streak and the 18-3 stretch they're still in.
  • Buy out help. As of the last meeting, the trade deadline had just passed and buy out season was just beginning. The Clippers added Glen Davis and Danny Granger after they were bought out; the Thunder added former Clipper Caron Butler. Butler is actually playing more minutes per game for the Thunder than he played last season for the Clippers -- though that may change now that Thabo Sefolosha is back. Granger is nursing a sore hamstring and although he was shooting jumpers in practice on Tuesday he will not play tonight.
  • Shumpert. Speaking of the trade deadline, the Clippers considered trading for the very available Iman Shumpert at the deadline. Things became complicated when Shumpert injured his knee on the Wednesday night before the Thursday deadline, but the Clippers and Knicks kept talking right until the last minute before the deal fell 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. The Thunder are not playing Russell Westbrook in back-to-back games after his sundry injury issues in the past year. But they chose to rest him during the Kings game last night in order to save him for the Clippers.
  • The streak is over. Durant's 41 game streak of 25 points or more came to an end last night in Sacramento when he finished with just 23. It was the third longest such streak in NBA history, and the longest in almost 50 years. Durant recently said that he hoped it would end soon so people would stop talking about it -- I was kind of hoping it would end against the Clippers, but now he'll probably start a streak of 40+ games.
  • Ibaka and Griffin. Something about Blake Griffin definitely gets under 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. Can Ibaka keep his cool against Griffin? Can Griffin be effective without getting into foul trouble himself?
  • The three ball. Suddenly Chris Paul is red hot from beyond the three point line. He has made 20 of his last 40 three pointers, and with J.J. Redick back in the lineup, the Clippers are suddenly much more capable of spreading the floor, even without Jamal Crawford playing. The Clippers remain almost unbeatable -- now 34-1 -- when making nine or more threes in a game. They've done so in seven of their last nine games.
  • OKC roster additions. During the 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. When Butler joined the team in March he became he broke the string.
  • 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 .338 this season. It's difficult to say whether this season or the last two is the outlier.
  • Year over year. The Thunder need to win their final five games to improve their winning percentage for the sixth consecutive season, which would be an NBA record. But guess what? The Clippers are just two wins away from improving for the fifth season in a row. The Thunder probably won't keep their streak alive, but the Clippers probably will and will have a shot at the record next year.
  • Restbwook's woes. Wussell Restbwook has had some major struggles against the Clippers. In his career against the LAC, he's shooting just .363 from the field in 21 games, his worst shooting against any opponent. He has had games of 1-12, 1-11, 3-13 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 15-44 in three meetings with the Clippers this season. Somehow, despite the fact that he has missed 35 games this season, he's managed to play against the Clippers every time. But given his history, I guess that's not a bad thing for the Clippers.
  • 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 an astounding 4.6 points per game 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. Both Blake Griffin and rookie Reggie Bullock could take turns as well. It will definitely be defense by committee. And it's important. Figuring out how to stop Durant will be the key to any potential Clippers-Thunder playoff series, so anything Rivers can learn here in April could come in handy in May.
  • 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. Former Clipper Ryan Gomes began the season with the Thunder, while former OKC player Byron Mullens began the season with the Clippers, but both are now gone. In Gomes' place is another recent Clippers small forward, Caron Butler. 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:
    King Lear -- Act II, Scene 4 -- Lear
    I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
    I will not trouble thee, my child; farewell.
    We'll no more meet, no more see one another.
    But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
    Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,
    Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
    A plague sore, an embossed carbuncle
    In my corrupted blood. But I'll not chide thee.
    Let shame come when it will, I do not call it.
    I do not bid the Thunder-bearer shoot
    Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove.
    Mend when thou canst; be better at thy leisure;
    I can be patient, I can stay with Regan,
    I and my hundred knights.
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