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Los Angeles Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Preview

2010/2011 NBA Regular Season

Staples Center
March 2nd, 2011, 7:30 PM
FSN Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Probable starters:
Mo Williams
PG Russell Westbrook
Eric Gordon
SG Thabo Sefolosha
Jamario Moon
SF Kevin Durant
Blake Griffin
PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan
C Kendrick Perkins

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

When the Clippers included this year's draft pick in the Baron Davis for Mo Williams trade back in February, we posited that perhaps the silver lining to losing a lottery pick was that the Clippers would have no incentive to tank down the stretch of the season to improve their draft position. Unfortunately, the absence of motivation to do badly is not quite the same as having actual motivation to do well, and from the fan's perspective, the results seem to be about the same. The Clippers have not looked sharp in three weeks, culminating in last night's desultory effort against the Steve Nash-less Phoenix Suns. It's really difficult to envision the Clippers winning another game this season given the difference in motivation levels between themselves (playing out the string in the far too long NBA regular season) and their opponents (fighting for playoff position and prepping for the post-season). As such, their 30th win of the season is far from guaranteed. One of the supposed strengths of Vinny Del Negro when he was hired as coach was that he would have the team playing hard all season - well, let's see it. Last night in Phoenix their effort, particularly on defense, was embarrassing, and it hasn't been much better for three weeks. The season can't end soon enough if that's what we're going to be seeing. Hopefully the Clippers can find the motivation to play with a little more energy in these final two weeks. With another sell out for tonight's game against the Thunder, maybe the crowd can provide the spark they need.

The Antagonist:

If the Lakers weren't 17-1 since the All Star Break, everyone would be talking about the Thunder. Oklahoma City won 14 of 16 games in March before losing on April Fool's Day last night in Portland. Their run of excellent play coincided with the trade that sent Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to Boston for Kendrick Perkins - but it wasn't a coincidence. Perkins actually missed the first nine games after the trade, but the Thunder played well even without him, as the loss of Green was addition by subtraction. Green was a very inefficient player, and his absence opened up more time for Serge Ibaka. At the same time, James Harden has stepped up to take up more of the scoring load after the trade, and he's a much more efficient scorer than Green (.604 True Shooting percentage versus .533). Of course the Thunder still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to carry most of the scoring load, and there is not a better young tandem in the league - maybe in the history of the league, when you consider that they're both just 22. With Perkins now able to provide a defensive presence in the middle that they've lacked, the Thunder are a potentially very scary team in the playoffs.

The Subplots

  • The Comparison. It's difficult not to think of the 08-09 Thunder when thinking of the current Clippers team. That Thunder team started the season 1-16. They were 3-29 after 32 wins games, and people were talking about their chances of having the worst record in history. Then something clicked with their young team, and they went 20-30 over the final 50 games. More importantly (and more exciting for Clipper fans) is that the growth continued into the next season when they won 50 games and made the playoffs, and now this season, as they're on pace to win 55 and to secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers this season started 1-13, and were just 5-21 after 26 games when things started to fall into place for them. In the 50 games since then, they're 24-26, even better than the Thunder turnaround of 20 wins over their final 50 games in 08-09. The teams are similar as well - a young mega-star and a young star guard, some nice young pieces to go with them, and financial flexibility to improve the team. Of course next season is where this comparison matters. It's one thing for a young team to improve on a terrible start while still struggling to a losing record - it's quite another thing to grow into a playoff team.
  • Both teams on a back to back. Both teams played last night, both had to travel to LA afterward. The Clippers at least got blown out, so they got to give their starters a little extra rest in garbage time.
  • The U23 Teams. We've discussed this before, but the Thunder have an even more impressive U23 team than the Clippers. As it happens, assuming Kaman is out of tonight's starting lineup with the viral infection that caused him to miss the game in Phoenix, each team will start three players under 23. The Thunder will start Durant (22), Westbrook (22) and Ibaka (21), while the Clippers will counter with Griffin (barely 22), Gordon (22) and Jordon (22). That's six starters under 22 in a single NBA game. It's March Madness, and each of these teams could field teams with college eligibility left.
  • Harden. James Harden is averaging about 17 points per game since the Jeff Green trade, after averaging a little over 10 to that point. He's scored 20 or more in seven of his last 17 games. He also had 19 points on just 12 shots the last time the Thunder played the Clippers.
  • Clippers small forward woes. The Clippers have gotten basically nothing from their small forward position this season. After being the starter by default for most of the year, Ryan Gomes was benched in favor of Jamario Moon last night in Phoenix. The move was ostensibly because of Gomes' sore knees, at least in part, but it's interesting that Gomes still played 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the move didn't help matters at all as Moon had 2 points and 4 rebounds in 24 minutes; Gomes had 2 and 2 in his 10 minutes. At this point, doesn't it make sense just to put Al-Farouq Aminu into the starting lineup and give him the bulk of the minutes? He has the most upside and benefits the most from the additional playing time.
  • Moral hazard. A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers) put forth the argument (made by many others as well) that the NBA draft presented what economists call a 'moral hazard'. By rewarding badly run teams (in this case, with high draft picks), the NBA is mitigating the risk of running your team badly, creating a moral hazard, and ensuring that underperforming teams will remain that way since they don't have the proper incentives to improve. I'm not sure I buy all that, and as long as you have a draft, I think it only makes sense to give the best picks to the worst teams (though you could make an argument for simply making all of the players free agents and doing away with the draft altogether). Anyway, my point apropos to the current situation, if in fact I have a point, is that the Clippers are proving this season that you can play really, really badly even when you DON'T have that moral hazard of a high draft pick - since they traded theirs to Cleveland six weeks ago.
  • Playing out the string. We in Clips Nation are far too familiar with the ritual of playing out the string. We hoped it would be different this season. It hasn't gone on at the truly dismal level quite as long, but at this point I would say that we are in full POTS mode. Sigh.
  • Green for Perkins. It's no surprise to anyone that's read my views on Jeff Green that I love this trade for the Thunder. Conversely, I hate it for the Celtics. And not surprisingly, the Thunder are peaking heading into the playoffs, while the Celtics are in a slump having lost 8 of their last 14. Interestingly, the Celtics did get a draft pick from Oklahoma City in the deal - a pick that will come from the Clippers. That's the pick the Clippers used to draft Eric Bledsoe this season. There are various restrictions and conditions on the pick, but suffice it to say that we hope it goes to Boston next year, and that it is not in the lottery (it can't be in the top 10 because of restrictions). The Thunder have already extended Perkins, making him part of their core for the future. Green will be a restricted free agent, and it will be interesting to see what the Celtics do with him. He's the kind of player who will likely get a contract offer for way more than he's worth.
  • What's next for the Thunder? As happens in the NBA, the Thunder will soon have to deal with a very different reality on their team. Their recent rise has been accomplished almost exclusively with players on their rookie contracts - which has kept their payroll low, and given them the flexibility to make opportunistic deals (like signing Nenad Krstic last year and trading for Thabo Sefolosha the year before). Starting next year, when Durant's max deal and Perkins' 4/$36M extension kick in, they'll be in a different position, carrying expensive long term contracts. The next year, they'll have to pay Westbrook, who'll no doubt want a max deal, and the year after that it will be Ibaka and Harden. Can they afford to keep this team together in small market Oklahoma City, when they'll all be asking for upwards of $10M each? That starting lineup could be great for years, but can they afford it?
  • Fear the Beard. James Harden will be the only full beard in the building tonight in the absence of Baron Davis. Harden is a local LA high school product, from Artesia High.
  • Bledsoe. Eric Bledsoe had probably his best game as a pro against the Thunder, in what was only his second start. He went for 17 points and 8 assists, and on several occasions took the ball end-to-end against the Thunder. Bledsoe matches up well with Westbrook, who may be too quick and and strong and athletic for Mo Williams.
  • 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.
  • Superstar for one game: Serge Ibaka.
  • Famous Quotation:

    Words whispered on Earth are heard in Heaven like thunder; evil done in dark places the gods see like lightning.

    Chinese proverb
  • Get the Thunder perspective at Welcome to Loud City.