Well, at least the Clippers' final meaningful game of the 2013-14 regular season was entertaining, because there were several points in that game when it seemed like the Clippers were going to get blown out of their own building by the only team left for them to chase in the standings. Oklahoma City got off to a strong start and opened up a lead as large as 15 mid-way though the second quarter, only to have the Clippers answer with a spurt of their own that cut their halftime deficit down to five.
It was in the final minute of the second quarter when the Clippers were finally able to muster something that resembled the best offense in the league after throwing up bricks for the first 23 minutes of the game. A Blake Griffin foul landed him on the bench, forcing Doc Rivers to close the half by going small with Hedo Turkoglu at the four. This worked out extremely well for the Clippers because it put the Thunder at odds with their fundamental defensive principles.
All game long, the Thunder packed the paint and pressured the ball on the perimeter, cutting off LA's dribble penetration and enticing the Clippers into Blake Griffin post-ups, which Serge Ibaka defended admirably throughout the game. But when the Clippers were able to run spread pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan surrounded by three shooters, the results were as follows: a lob to Jordan, a lay-up for Paul and a wing three for Turkoglu.
That would be the last of smallball, though, or at least the version of it with Paul on the floor with Jordan or Griffin as the big. Predictably, once the Clippers went back to their usual line-up, the offense bogged down and the Thunder were able to build up a huge lead once again. This isn't to say that there was no way for the Clippers to score effectively with Jordan or Griffin on the floor together, but with J.J. Redick going 1-of-7 from deep, Matt Barnes hitting just one of his four three-point attempts and Griffin struggling to perform with his usual proficiency on the block against Ibaka, I feel like Doc could have tried to manufacture the space that his offense was sorely lacking by going small a bit more.
But hey, the Clippers nearly came back and won this game with their core group even with everyone having horrific shooting nights. The Clippers went on a 12-0 run over a two minute span in the fourth quarter, cutting Oklahoma City's lead to one with four minutes left in the game. But after all of that work, once the game was finally within reach, the Clippers pissed away a pair of opportunities to take the lead with turnovers in the open court, and Westbrook and Durant would cold heartedly close the coffin. Westbrook delivered a nasty putback jam to put the Thunder up four with two minutes left, and after the Clippers got it back down to two, Durant threw up a wild stepback three that miraculously tickled the twine.
It's hard to pinpoint something that the Clippers did well in this game. The league's best offense shot 42% from the field, 30% from three and, perhaps most damning, 62% from the charity stripe. It's not necessarily shocking for the Clippers to struggle at the line or from beyond the arc on a given night, but for nothing to be functioning properly in the same game was certainly out of the ordinary, and it stacked the odds against Los Angeles from the get go. And I almost forgot to mention the 17 total turnovers for a team that has the 6th best turnover rate in basketball, and several of those turnovers could be described as bone-headed or clumsy.
You have to credit Oklahoma City. This performance wasn't all that different than the one they had against the San Antonio Spurs last Thursday when they forced the usually precise Spurs into 18 turnovers and disrupted what is one of the league's most fluid offenses. The Thunder are so long and athletic that they are able to clog the paint and the passing lanes all at once, and once they decide to throw aggressive pick-and-roll coverages at you, it can cause things to stall and force even a veteran maestro like CP3 into some fundamental mistakes.
And it was those kinds of mistakes that did the Clippers in for good in this one. Because as poorly as the Clippers played offensively, the Thunder weren't any better, shooting 42% from the field and 24% from deep themselves. The major difference, you might've guessed, was that Oklahoma City only turned the ball over eight times and made 81% of their 32 free throws. In what ended up as a six point defeat, you don't have to look any deeper than that for a reason that the Clippers won't have homecourt advantage in what would surely be one of the most entertaining conference semi-finals matchups in recent memory.
Some other notes:
- I thought Reggie Bullock gave 12 really good minutes in this game. You'd still like for someone that was billed as a shooter coming out of college to provide some kind of scoring punch from the perimeter, but Doc inserted him for one reason and one reason alone tonight: defense. I thought the rookie did an admirable job on Durant, using his length to bother Durant at his point of release, and you can give him partial credit for Durant's bad game.
- And Durant did have an off night. I suppose that is a bit concerning considering the result. Though Westbrook was excellent, you won't have many better opportunities to beat the Thunder than when Durant has an 8-of-26 performance (1-of-7 from three).
- It's crazy: When Chris Paul got trapped up high off of a pick-and-roll and he tried to split the defenders with a bounce pass, the Thunder managed to get a finger tip on the ball to create a live ball turnover. The same thing happened with Tony Parker last week. You don't see those two guys mess up in that particular situation very often. It speaks to Oklahoma City's length and activity defensively and what a disruption it can be.
- Blake finished with 30 and 12 but he shot below 50% and had just one assist. I suppose finding error with his performance is kind of like what we used to do with LeBron in his Cleveland days, but I found myself thinking he was a bit out of sorts at times, especially when the Clippers tried to force feed him down low early on. We saw a lot of forced up shots that didn't come close to going in. There wasn't a lot of pick-and-roll with Blake in this game either, as the Clippers mostly used it for Griffin to roll into a post position. Like I said before, the Thunder pull out all of the stops to pack the paint, and the Clippers weren't able to make them pay from the outside.
- Those were the most camouflaged eight assists I have ever (not) seen from Redick tonight. I suppose it is hard to notice someone's positive contributions when they go 1-of-7 from three and struggle defensively. I wouldn't panic, though, as Redick said after the Mavericks game that he doesn't think he'll be back in the swing of things until the playoffs begin.
- Derek Fisher didn't make a three in this game. That's a win for everybody!
- DeAndre had some unbelievable dunks in this game. That poster on Ibaka may have been his slam yet when you consider that Ibaka punched a Clipper in the nuts last year. Revenge is always fun, although Ibaka had a huge impact defensively in this game.