The Back Story:
- First meeting of the season. Oklahoma City won the season series last year 2 games to 1, with the visiting team winning each game.
The Big Picture:
The Clippers are the first NBA team to four losses, and the games aren't getting easier. With Oklahoma City in Staples Center tonight, the Clippers leave for their first extended road trip of the season tomorrow, with stops in Denver, Utah, New Orleans and San Antonio. We'll get into those games more later, but suffice it to say that those teams/cities have been complete nightmares for the Clippers. So if they really want to avoid an oh and nine start, they kind of need to beat the Thunder tonight. The Clippers have had a little bit better history with the Thunder, with a 4-3 record since the team moved to Oklahoma City. Of course, the team started off really bad and then got good - and in fact OKC has won now three straight over the Clippers in LA. Ooops. The Clippers may or may not have Baron Davis in the lineup tonight - they will definitely be without Randy Foye. If neither veteran point guard can play, the Clippers will once again start 20 year old rookie Eric Bledsoe at the point. Bledsoe played admirably in his first start Monday night. His four steals (and several more deflections) and two blocks were perhaps the most impressive thing about his game. Bledsoe will get help at the point from Eric Gordon, who did most of the ball handling Monday, and recorded a career high 11 assists to go with 23 points in the loss to San Antonio.
The Thunder are 2-1, but I have to suspect that
Scott Skiles Scott Brooks can't be too pleased with their performance so far. They looked fine in beating Chicago in their first game, but then had to struggle to beat a winless Detroit team at the buzzer, and then got blown out by the Jazz. They're shooting an atrocious percentage from the field (only the Clippers are worse, and you have to go to four decimals to tell, .3987 versus .3992), and they've made the second fewest threes in the league - fewer even than the Clippers! - while shooting the worst three point percentage - worse even than the Clippers! Worse though is that their defense, which was ninth best in the league last season in points per possession allowed, has dropped to 24th in the league, which is, you guessed it, even worse than the Clippers. Of course, with only three games played, the numbers can be skewed terribly by one game such as the beat down that Utah put on them. Kevin Durant is leading the league in scoring at just under 30 per game (he's scored 30, 30 and 28 in the first three), but he's been struggling from the field, making just 39% of his shot attempts.
- A brick layers convention. As I mentioned, the Clippers are shooting 39.87% from the field so far this season, while the Thunder are shooting 39.92%. So if you like rebounding, this is the game for you, since there figures to be a lot of them available. In addition to their poor overall shooting percentage, the Thunder have made only 11 threes in their three games, giving them by far the worst effective field goal percentage in the league.
- Charity. So if the Thunder are shooting so terribly, how are they 2-1? Three words: free throw line. Durant (35 free throw attempts), Westbrook (31) and Jeff Green (24) have combined to shoot 90 free throws between them in just three games, and they've made 77 of them, which is more than the Clippers have made as a team in 4 games. The Thunder are leading the league in free three attempts and makes, by a WIDE margin. In a one point win over Detroit, they outscored the Pistons by 21 from the line.
- Three point shooting. Something's gotta give in this game, because the Clippers are allowing more than 9 made three pointers per game, and their opponents are making 47% from deep. Both of those are league worst marks, it almost goes without saying. On the other hand, the Thunder have made fewer than 4 per game, and are shooting 21% from deep, both of which are league worst marks. This is quite a blessing for the Clippers if OKC can continue to miss from deep, as they've been getting absolutely killed from beyond the arc so far this season.
- Team USA. This game is a reunion for three members of Team USA. Durant was of course the unquestioned star of the team in Turkey. Westbrook and Eric Gordon were both less likely additions to the team, who played their way onto the second unit together. The pressure defense from Westbrook and Gordon was at times the best thing about Team USA. For the tournament as a whole, there's no question that Durant was the team's best player, while Westbrook and Gordon were their best reserves.
Eric Gordon's Three Point Shooting. In addition to his defense, it was EJ's three point shooting that distinguished him in Turkey. Unfortunately, his three point range has completely abandoned him so far this season, where he is now 3 for 21. Everything else about his game is clicking - he's getting to the rim, he's finishing like a monster, he's even distributing well. If he can find the long ball, he could really go on a tear.
- Under 23 Teams. When the Clippers fielded a team of Bledsoe, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan Sunday afternoon against Dallas, I quipped that it was probably the best Under 23 team in the NBA. Citizen ClipperChuck correctly pointed out that it comes up short compared to Westbrook, James Harden, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Cole Aldrich (or Byron Mullens, if you prefer). Of course, Durant plus four guys from the local middle school would be a pretty good U23 team. Minnesota and Sacramento are the other teams, off the top of my head, who could field teams.
- Defending Durant. I really have no idea how the Clippers propose to stop Durant. The initial assignment will fall to Ryan Gomes, but I don't see that working as Durant is just to fast for him. Rasual Butler will take a turn, and maybe Aminu. Does Gordon get the call? Did he learn anything playing against him this summer?
- Bledsoe and Westbrook. On the surface, there are some similarities between Bledsoe and Westbrook. Both played shooting guard in college but were drafted to play the point. Both are explosive athletes. And both, you'll recall, were drafted by Oklahoma City. If Bledsoe can become even a reasonable approximation of Westbrook, the Clippers will have done well to draft him. Bear in mind that Westbrook was a turnover machine his first two seasons in the league, and continues to have issues taking care of the ball - that's another area where Bledsoe will be like Westbrook.
- Bigs. On the surface, you would not think that OKC's starting bigs, Nenad "the Chair" Krstic and Jeff Green, would be able to handle Chris Kaman and Blake Griffin. Of course, that's what we thought about the Golden State game as well, and a steady first quarter diet of plays for Kaman ended up digging a big hole. But Chris may have broken out of his early season slump Monday night against the Spurs when he went 9 for 17. It would be nice if the Clippers could actually win a matchup in the front court this season, given that it was supposed to be a major strength of this team.
- The future for OKC. The Thunder are in a great position, and are widely cited as the new blueprint for young teams, including the Clippers of course. But let's bear in mind that they haven't been out of the first round of the playoffs yet. Yes, they won 50 games last season, with an incredibly young lineup that appears to have plenty of room for continued improvement. But they also did it with uncanny health all season long, as their three leading scorers did not miss a single game, and their starters missed a combined total of six. It will also be interesting to see how they handle second contracts - it's really easy to build a team with draft picks, because they're cheap and the salary cap is a non-issue. But when those guys reach year five (as Durant and Green do next season, and Westbrook the year after that), you have to start making some tough decisions, particularly against the reality of an NBA payroll in small market Oklahoma City. Reupping Durant was a no-brainer, as will be Westbrook next year. Green on the other hand is a much tougher call, and I assume that Sam Presti will not want to commit too much to him. We'll see.
- Superstar for one game: Serge Ibaka. I first saw this guy in the 2009 Summer League, and he was just terrible. Then I saw him play for them last season and I couldn't believe my eyes. He was athletic, long, talented, amazing. I'm not sure why they don't go ahead and start him at center over Krstic.
And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man!
- Get the Thunder perspective at Welcome to Loud City.