NBA Playoffs Round 2 Clippers-Thunder Series Preview

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Clippers and the Thunder survived incredibly competitive, seven game series in the first round to advance. Now they face each other in what promises to be an even more entertaining show.

2014 NBA Playoffs
First Round
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vs

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57-25

59-23
Series Schedule
Game 1 - Mon May 5, 6:30 p.m., TNT, Oklahoma City, Chesapeake Energy Arena
Game 2 - Wed May 7, 6:30 p.m., TNT, Oklahoma City, Chesapeake Energy Arena
Game 3 - Fri May 9, 7:30 p.m., ESPN, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 4 - Sun May 11, 12:30 p.m., ABC, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 5*  Tue May 13, Time TBD, TNT, Oklahoma City, Chesapeake Energy Arena
Game 6*  Thu May 15, Time TBD, ESPN, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 7 * Sun May 18, Time TBD, TNT, Oklahoma City, Chesapeake Energy Arena
* if necessary
Win-Loss Breakdown
21-9 East 23-7
36-16 West 36-16
34-7 Home 34-7
23-18 Road 25-16
25-18 .500+ 27-16
32-7 .500- 32-7
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
Key Reserves
Darren Collison PG Derek Fisher
Jamal Crawford SG Reggie Jackson
Jared Dudley SF Caron Butler
Danny Granger PF Nick Collison
Glen Davis C Steven Adams
Advanced Stats 2013-2014 Regular Season
98.39 (7th of 30) Pace 98.53 (6th of 30)
109.4 (1st of 30) ORtg 108.1 (7th of 30)
102.1 (7th of 30) DRtg 101.0 (5th of 30)
Injuries/Other
Hedo Turkoglu (back) out
None

The Back Story (The teams split the season series 2-2):

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
04/09/14 Los Angeles Thunder 107, Clippers 101 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers survived a tough Golden State team and a massive distraction to emerge from the first round for the second time in three years and only the third time in their California history. They have never moved beyond the Conference Semi-finals, but then again they've never had a team this good or a coach this good. The Clippers had a chance to pass the Thunder in the standings late in the season, in which case tonight's game would have been in Los Angeles and not in Oklahoma City -- let's hope that doesn't prove decisive in the series. During the regular season, each team won once on the other's home floor, so while the teams tied for the best home record in the Western Conference this season, they also know they can win on the road. The Clippers have a chance to start over, more than a week after the Donald Sterling racism rant was made public, and almost a week after commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life. The distraction is still there -- the NBA will be pursuing a new CEO for the team while initiating procedures to force him to sell -- but the news at this point is mostly good, and the distraction is dialed way back. Does that bode well for the Clippers? They're certainly glad to have a chance to keep playing, to avoid losing in the first round and having the Sterling cloud forever hang over the loss. The team will certainly have their hands full against the Thunder. OKC looked vulnerable in the first round, but then again Tony Allen defending Kevin Durant can have that effect. The Clippers don't have a wing stopper anywhere close to Allen's level, but they will have defensive schemes designed to limit Durant. On the other end, the Clippers need their stars (Blake Griffin and Chris Paul) to play like stars, but they also need another huge series from DeAndre Jordan (who may have been their best player in the first round) and consistent scoring from the likes of Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison. And it would be nice if someone else on the bench could do something -- Danny Granger and Jared Dudley were dreadful in the first round and Geln Davis was less than great. I'm not sure the Clippers can survive another round with no help off then bench in the front court.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder surprised me this season. I expected them to take a step back, and that was with the expectation that Russell Westbrook would miss relatively few games. Instead, Westbrook was out 36 games, but the Thunder still won 59 and posted the second best record in the league. They did that while most of the lineup regressed, at least a bit. But none of that mattered, as Kevin Durant rose to a level rarely seen. He'll win his first MVP when the award is announced later this week, and while voters were certainly looking for an alternative to LeBron James, in this case the results are legit. Durant and James and far and away the two best basketball players on the planet, and Durant was better this season -- certainly better on offense. On a team without a great third scorer that was missing its second scorer 44% of the season, Durant simply carried them, scoring easily and efficiently all season, despite the fact that every defense always knew that he was getting the ball. With Westbrook back, that changes -- maybe not to OKC's advantage. They have another weapon, but they also have less clarity. Westbrook (true shooting percentage .545) had a higher usage percentage than Durant  (34.4 versus 33.0) when he played, despite the fact that Durant is the best scorer in the league and much more efficient (TSP .635). That's just stupid, and the blame has to fall on both Westbrook and coach Scott Brooks for letting it happen. And maybe you give some of the blame to Durant for not demanding the ball. Westbrook is a monster to be certain, but if your defense can force (invite?) him to shoot more than Durant, you've taken a step towards winning. The Thunder faced elimination in the first round when the Grizzlies took a 3-2 lead and had a chance to close them out at home -- but OKC responded with two relatively easy wins. The team with the best player very frequently wins in the playoffs -- and Kevin Durant is clearly the best player.

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. The Clippers Net Rating (the difference between their offensive rating and their defensive rating) is 7.3 -- the Thunder are at 7.1. Those trail only the Spurs (8.1) and are a full point better than the Heat (6.1).
  • Keys to the series. Be sure to check out Mark Travis' Keys to the Series post for his insights. Mark will be attending all of the games in Oklahoma City covering it for Clips Nation, so he'll be bringing us on site reporting from Oklahoma throughout the series. This is a first for Clips Nation to have a reporter on the road for games, and we're very excited about this.
  • No more Ralph and Mike. Beginning with the second round, the NBA grants the exclusive broadcast rights to the national networks. So unless you want to turn down the volume on the TV and try to sync up with the radio, we won't get to listen to Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith anymore -- which is a shame. I'm not sure how much of Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller I can take (fingers crossed that TNT gives us someone else tonight, but I'm not hopeful). If you're like me and relied on the season series on your DVR to record all the Clipper games on Prime Ticket, don't forget to set it for the playoffs since the games won't be on Prime Ticket any more.
  • A superstar league. The NBA is a superstar league -- and this is a superstar series. Depending on what you think of Westbrook, each of these teams have two players among the best in the league. Durant and Paul were first team All NBA last season, Griffin and Westbrook were second team. Griffin could finish third in MVP voting when it's announced, and Paul could be among the top five vote getters. With Dwyane Wade fading a bit in Miami (and again, depending on your view of Russell), these are arguably the two best "Big Twos" in the NBA right now.
  • The coaching matchup. Two seasons ago, the Clippers bombed out of the second round, being swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were the better team that season, but perhaps more importantly, they also had the far better coach, Gregg Popovich versus Vinny Del Negro. Doc Rivers may not be Popovich and Scott Brooks may not be Vinny Del Negro -- but the analogy is pretty apt. The Thunder have plenty of talent, but I expect the Clippers to have a pretty big advantage on the sidelines.
  • The 2 seed. At the All Star break, the Thunder seemed to have an insurmountable lead over the Clippers in the regular season standings (six games). But on April 9th when the two teams played in Los Angeles, a Clippers win would have put them in the driver's seat for the 2 seed. the Clippers played poorly in that game and lost 107-101; but even with that, the race came down to the final game of the season, when the Thunder barely beat the lowly Pistons. Regardless, OKC held on for the 2 seed, giving them the advantage of Game 7 in this series. Both teams went seven games in the first round, both won on their home court to advance. Let's hope HCA doesn't prove to be equally important in this series.
  • The April meeting. It's important to bear in mind that Jamal Crawford missed that April game, as did Danny Granger. In addition, J.J. Redick was working his way back from a prolonged absence and shot 1-7 from the floor. Four points on 1-7 from Redick and Crawford is a far cry from 42 points on 14-25, which is what they did in Game 7 on Saturday.
  • Paul's health. Chris Paul played most of the Golden State series on a tweaked hamstring and has jammed a thumb in the series as well. (He jammed his other thumb late in the season, and I think both are still bothering him based on some sloppy ball handling against the Warriors.) He had to chase Steph Curry all over in the first round, and now he'll be opposite Russell Westbrook -- yikes. With just one day off from the first round to the second, there's not much reason to think Paul will be much improved health-wise. However, he did make some moves in Game 7 that seemed more like the real CP3, so it seemed that the hammy was feeling better. It goes without saying that the Clippers chances decrease dramatically if Paul is less than 100%.
  • Return to OKC. If there's another fanbase in the country that should love the Clippers, it's in the Sooner state. The Clippers' superstars are admittedly polarizing -- people tend to love Blake Griffin and Chris Paul or hate them. But Griffin is an Oklahoma native who played high school ball in the OKC region and college ball at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman. Meanwhile, Chris Paul was the star of the Hornets when they played for two seasons in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina drove them out of New Orleans temporarily. The basketball fans of the region literally cheered for Paul on the Hornets and Griffin on the Sooners. Somehow I don't think they're going to get the same reaction in this series.
  • Sefolosha or Butler? The Thunder benched starting guard Thabo Sefolosha midway through the Grizzlies series in favor of Caron Butler. Butler gives them more size and more offense -- Sefolosha is the better defender. Against the Clippers, you have to figure they'll go back to Thabo. Scott Brooks has generally preferred to have Sefolosha check Chris Paul rather than have Westbrook use that energy. But Sefolosha's had such a bad season as a scorer, Brooks might not feel he can have him out there. Not to mention that OKC won Games 6 and 7 with Butler starting, while Sefolosha got his first DNP-CDs of the season. Welcome to Loud City has more on the question of Thabo or Caron, but no one's really sure what Brooks is going to do.
  • Steve on the Thunder.talked a lot of smack about the Thunder in the off-season. I thought they'd take a step back, I thought they'd miss Kevin Martin, I thought the Clippers would be the better team. I was right about a lot of the details (they don't have a third scorer, Jeremy Lamb wasn't ready, etc.), but I failed to take one thing into account: Kevin Durant is that good.
  • Getting a handle on OKC. Oklahoma City's worst stretches this season came with Russell Westbrook in the lineup. While Westbrook was out, the team was incredibly consistent because they knew who they were: basically everything flowed through Durant on offense, and they played great defense. With Westbrook they seemed to struggle more with their identity -- a problem that has spilled over into the playoffs at least a bit when you look at Westbrook taking 31 shots to Durant's 24 in a Game 4 loss. Westbrook is clearly a transcendent talent and OKC's ceiling is higher with him than without him -- but they also struggle to know the best way to play when he's in the lineup.
  • Buy out help. Following the trade deadline is the NBA's buyout season, when veterans are waived by re-building teams and sign on with championship contenders. The Clippers added Glen Davis and Danny Granger and the Thunder added former Clipper Caron Butler in this year's buyout frenzy. Butler -- who was flat out terrible for the Clippers in the playoffs last season against the Grizzlies -- has played 196 minutes in seven playoff games for the Thunder, which is more than Davis (78) and Granger (70) combined. The Thunder were down 3-2 to the Grizzlies in their first round series when Scott Brooks put Butler into the starting lineup and they easily won Games 6 and 7 to take the series. If you'd asked me in March which of those signings was the most significant, I certainly would not have picked Caron.
  • 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 dragged out the discussion just to run out the clock and keep Shumpert away from OKC. But he wouldn't have done that. Would he?
  • Thunder vets. I will attest to being more than a bit amazed that a team with championship aspirations tends to have Caron Butler and Derek Fisher on the floor in crunch time. For all of the talk of Sam Presti being some sort of team building savant, he hasn't really found a contributor in the draft since James Harden, and obviously Harden's not going to be there tonight. (OK, I'll give Presti credit for Reggie Jackson, but I'm not sold on anyone else yet, certainly not Steven Adams.) The 30 something grey beards added from waivers are the key additions in the past two seasons.
  • The Harden trade. The Thunder got Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three picks (two firsts and a second) for James Harden. One of the first rounders is Steven Adams, the second rounder is stashed in Europe (Alex Abrines). They'll get Dallas' pick (#21) in this year's draft. Martin is gone, Lamb has fallen out of the rotation; Adams has shown promise. Obviously there was always going to be an issue of paying Harden, but is Lamb, Adams, Abrines and a late first rounder an appropriate return? In the first round of the playoffs this season (and bear in mind, championship windows tend to close pretty quickly), the Harden trade provided 74  minutes and 10 points.
  • 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? After a heated series in which he faced off with the likes of Draymond Green, David Lee and Jermaine O'Neal -- a series in which the hostilities extended beyond Game 7 in the tunnel between the locker rooms -- Griffin will be right back at it with hostile adversaries in Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
  • 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 next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But after making .419 last season and .437 the season before that, he fell off the table to .316 this season. He closed the season 1-13 after returning from injury. It's difficult to say whether this season or the last two is the outlier, but Scott Brooks didn't bother to play him in the last two games of the Memphis series.
  • Year over year. The Thunder came up just shy of setting an NBA record with six straight season's of improved winning percentages (they won 60 games last season, 59 this season). Now it's the Clippers chasing that record. By improving from 56 wins to 57 wins, the Clippers have now improved in five straight seasons 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 .372 from the field in 22 games, his worst shooting against any western conference 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 seven of 22 career games, and one of those was that 3-14 game where he got to the line a lot. He was a combined 15-44 in the first three meetings with the Clippers this season, but had a big game in April making 12-20 for 30 points. If somehow the Clippers can maintain their general mastery of Westbrook, they'll have a very good chance in this series.
  • 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 the scoring ability of a demi-god. No one can guard him; that's why he continually leads the league in scoring (he was best 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. Neither of these choices are ideal. Both Blake Griffin and rookie Reggie Bullock could take turns as well. Or Doc may try to use Danny Granger's length on KD. It will definitely be defense by committee. And it's important. Figuring out how to stop Durant will be the key to the series. The Clippers don't have a Tony Allen to put on him -- it's going to have to be about schemes and defense by committee.
  • Stopping Curry, stopping Durant. Steph Curry was seventh in the NBA in scoring this season at 24 points per game. His effective field goal percentage in the regular season was .589. In the first round, the Clippers held him to 23 points per game on .534 eFG. Can they scheme on Durant similarly to knock him down from his gawdy averages (32 points per game, .560 eFG)? The Clippers could not keep Curry off the line, where he went 16 times in Game 7. Durant took and made more free throws than anyone in the league this season -- and you can believe he'll be there a lot this season. Defending without fouling (and convincing the refs that they didn't foul) may be the Clippers biggest challenge this series.
  • Connections. Blake Griffin was born and raised in Oklahoma near Oklahoma City and played his college ball at OU in Norman. Thunder coach Scott 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.
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