Fresh off of a pair of game sevens, the Clippers and Thunder are finally set to tip off on a playoff matchup that has been brewing even since Los Angeles acquires Chris Paul. You have CP3 returning to the city he once called home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Blake Griffin returning to his actual home and a building full of Sooner fans that have turned their backs on him and two of the most exciting offensive teams in the league. It has all of the makings for yet another classic series in what has already been an incredible post-season, and here's what the Clippers will have to focus on if they want to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals.
For three years running the Memphis Grizzlies have provided a solid blue print on how to stop the Thunder. With a Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol anchoring their defense downlow, they've pestered Kevin Durant to no end, often forcing Russell Westbrook to jack up tough shots in hero mode. Watch the tape and it's clear that the Grizzlies' sole focus on defense is to make sure that Durant does not beat them. It's easy to say, but this is the team that has had the most sustained success in doing so.
It's easy to look at how much Durant and Westbrook struggled in round one and be optimistic about slowing them down in this series, but there is a big problem for the Clippers here: They don't have Tony Allen.
Allen is some unnatural combination of brute strength, genius instincts, clairvoyant anticipation and perpetual peskiness. If there was one purpose for Allen to be in the league, it would be to guard Durant, a scrawny lightweight that can't fight him off and isn't assertive to demand the ball. Many would refer to Matt Barnes as a pest, but he's nowhere close to the defender that Allen is, at least in the context of guarding Durant. Barnes is long and decently athletic, but he's just not capable of locking down Durant in the way that Allen has.
The Clippers simply don't have the individual personnel to guard Durant. Barnes is going to guard him for most of the series and I'm sure Danny Granger will get a shot at some point as well. Doc Rivers may even want to try and buy a couple of minutes with Reggie Bullock guarding Durant, as he seemed to have a little bit of success during a brief stint against KD during the regular season. Or perhaps it is Jared Dudley that gets inserted back into the rotation to give Durant a different look. While it's nice to have options, none of these guys are going to shutdown Durant like Allen did.
What's more, the Clippers don't really have a second serviceable wing defender that can take on the responsibility of guarding Russell Westbrook like Courtney Lee did for Memphis. Chris Paul did a masterful job of chasing Steph Curry around against the Warriors, but unlike Curry, who Paul could attach himself to in hopes that Curry would head towards the rim, a place where he was made uncomfortable by DeAndre Jordan's size, getting into Westbrook's hip is a recipe for disaster, because he's got the size and athleticism to finish at the rim. Throw in the fact that Paul is dealing with a hamstring issue and we may end up with Darren Collison guarding Westbrook for stretches in this series, which I'm sure would lead to a lot of Bruin-on-Bruin crime.
So what can the Clippers do? Well, they have to follow Memphis' gameplan as best they can. They have to do everything that they can make Durant and Westbrook into facilitators, even though Durant is likely to shoot a far better percentage than he did in round one. Los Angeles will have to make sure they sag off of every non-shooter that the Thunder have, abandoning Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson to pack the paint and throw extra bodies at Durant and Westbrook. One interesting thing to watch is whether or not Scotty Brooks stays with his new starting line-up - Caron Butler in for Sefolosha at the two guard - or if Sefolosha gets back into the rotation to guard Chris Paul.
The Clippers will also have to do the best they can at keeping the pressure off of DeAndre Jordan. As good as he was against the Warriors, Oklahoma City's two stars will relentlessly attack the rim unlike Golden State's best players because they know they'll get bailed out by the whistle. Jordan will have to be an animal on the backline of the defense for LA to win, but the Clippers also must make sure that he isn't defending every shot at the rim because they can't survive for long with their back-up bigs on the floor if he gets into foul trouble.
One way to make Jordan's job easier is to stop having Griffin show hard on high screen-and-rolls. This has been a big part of the Clippers' pick-and-roll defense all season long, but if Griffin doesn't properly deter Westbrook from turning the corner and if Paul doesn't recover quick enough, it can open up the lane for him to drive right at Jordan.
Westbrook threw up a wild shot here, but you can see how this could hurt the Clippers. Not only does Westbrook go right at Jordan, which presents a good chance of a foul being called if he takes it to Jordan's body, but Ibaka is also in pretty good rebounding position on the miss. Instead, Los Angeles could have Griffin sag to the free throw line to contain the dribble and entice the pull-up jumper, something the Grizzlies did expertly. Baiting Westbrook into mid-range shots is one of the key things in beating the Thunder because not only is it an efficient shot, it's keeping him from getting anyone else involved or drawing fouls at the rim.
Of course, if they are going to use that strategy, they'll have to make sure that their help defenders don't lose track of Durant. Digging down or watching the ball for even a split second can be a deadly mistake against him.
The key to this series for the Clippers will be defending as a team anytime that Durant or Westbrook has the ball and sending loads of help their way to make sure Oklahoma City's questionable supplemental players are relied on heavily. At some point, Durant and Westbrook will abandon their trust in their teammates and they'll start to try to takeover themselves, and so long as the Clippers are working together to throw them out of rhythm, Los Angeles has a great shot to take them down.
Finding The Role Players
We've talked about how important it is to make Oklahoma City's role players beat you, but inevitably any game against the Thunder winds up being 2-on-5 at some point. Against an offensively challenged team like Memphis, OKC had just enough to get by, but against the more well-rounded Clippers, they may struggle to keep up.
That's why it is important for guys like J.J. Redick, who struggled mightily from the field against the Warriors up until his strong game seven, Barnes, Granger, Collison and Crawford to come up big to make sure the Clippers have enough firepower to outscore Durant and Westbrook. You'd feel a little bit better about relying on the supporting cast if Paul was 100% healthy, as he'd be able to take on a sizable scoring load, but with his hamstring bothering him and the possibility of a longer defender like Sefolosha picking him up, there's a good chance that Los Angeles will need at least two of those five guys to have strong games for the Clippers to win, and maybe even three in Oklahoma City's home building.
What's good is that the Thunder aren't quite as troublesome defensively as the Warriors were. During the middle of the series, Golden State stopped caring about who was guarding who and just switched everything no matter who was involved. They often would up with their shooting guard guarding DeAndre Jordan or some other wacky matchup and it worked because Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are a sublime defensive trio. While the Thunder have a great defensive scheme, they aren't quite as flexible as the Warriors were in the first round and their weaknesses can easily be exploited if the Clippers' shooters play well.
Here's what I mean.
The Thunder pack the paint defensively and go out of their way to have their wings drop into the paint to clutter the lane. This philosophy led to OKC surrendering the third most three-point attempts in the league this season, but they may be fine with the tradeoff seeing as opponents only shot 56.6% in the restricted area against them, the second best mark in the league behind the Pacers. It's up to the Clippers to make sure they take advantage of this strategy by knocking down their open looks when they get them.
Crawford may be the guy the Clippers need to step up the most. He torched Oklahoma City during the regular season with a 36-point outing on top of a pair of good games and his ability to shoot off dribble and the catch is big against the Thunder. If he gets going not only can he force the Thunder to stop sagging off of him, which would open up the lane a bit, he can also get Scott Brooks to put Sefolosha on him instead of CP3. On the other end, Crawford is unreliable, but the Thunder usually offer opponents a couple of non-threats to hide poor defenders on like Sefolosha, Butler or Derek Fisher. Crawford is coming off a pretty good showing in the Warriors series, and 18-20 points a game from him in this series could be the difference.
Redick is a huge factor as well. The Clippers love to run him off of screens and Redick has become very good at getting into pick-and-rolls when he receives the ball rather than just shooting all of the time. That ability for the Clippers to essentially run rotating pick-and-rolls on different sides of the floor can extend Oklahoma City's big men and create some space under the basket. It's also important, of course, for Redick to knockdown the shots he gets, particularly in transition, as this is sure to be an up-and-down series.
Honestly, if Crawford and Redick play well for most of this series, anything the Clippers get from Collison or Granger will be gravy. Obviously, they need them to do something so that the offense doesn't die when Griffin or Paul need a break, but the Thunder aren't going to get much from their role players, so there is not a huge responsibility for the Clippers to get great performances from everyone on the roster. What the Clippers need is their shooters to adequately space the floor so that they can exploit Oklahoma City's biggest weakness, and if Crawford can consistently be a third scorer, then Los Angeles will have an important advantage over the Thunder.
This Is Blake Griffin's Series
The whole season has been building to this point. Ever since Paul went out with his shoulder injury, the Clippers have relied more and more on Griffin. Now that a gimpy Paul is in for his second straight series of dealing with long and athletic defenders, Los Angeles has never needed Griffin to step and become a superstar more than now.
It starts with Griffin as a scorer. In the first round, the Thunder single covered Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post, allowing the two Grizzlie bigs to attack Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka one-on-one without sending help. I imagine it will be more of the same in this series against Griffin. The only reason Perkins is still employed by the Thunder is so that he can guard post players, and he did a great job against Randolph in the first round. Griffin will have to use his speed to render Perkins' superior size and strength moot, and once Serge Ibaka is switched onto him, he'll have to make sure he muscles his way deep into the paint to negate Ibaka's shotblocking ability.
Admittedly, it's tough to ask Griffin to dominate this series with his post scoring, so it's a good thing that he can shred Oklahoma City's defense in another way. Because the Thunder like to pack the paint, Griffin can use their aggressiveness to his advantage on pick-and-rolls by drawing the second big away from the rim and getting any easy pass to Jordan for a lob or dunk.
With Ibaka busy preventing Redick's dribble penetration at the foulline, Steven Adams must step up to guard Griffin on the roll. Because Ibaka has contained Redick, there's no reason for Durant to drop down, at least until Adams leaves Jordan to guard Griffin. But at that point, a rotation by Durant would mean very little because Griffin has already lobbed the ball up for a dunk. And had Durant been there in time to keep Jordan from getting the easy bucket, Griffin has proven to be capable of making that pass to the corner to Dudley for three.
Griffin can also use a trick called "shorting" on pick-and-rolls that allows him to slip from the top of the key without ever setting a screen, creating a two-on-one mismatch in the paint for the Clipper bigs. Yet again we see Adams step up, leaving the rim unprotected for Jordan to attack.
Mixing in pick-and-rolls and getting Griffin good looks in the post, preferably in semi-transition where Blake is able to get good position and make a quick move against an unset defense, will allow Griffin to pick apart the Thunder's interior defense. Expecting him to be an efficient scorer all throughout this series may be a bit much, but he's definitely got the ability to be effective downlow even against good post defenders. And should the Thunder ever chose to go small in this series, then Griffin can start going to work on Oklahoma City's perimeter defense by drawing help and kicking it out to shooters.
100% or not, Chris Paul is definitely going to have a huge impact on this series, but it's unlikely that he'll be able to carry a massive scoring load. This puts a big burden on Griffin, but if this entire season has been any indication, he'll be up for the challenge and then some.
My pick: Clippers in 6