The Back Story:
First meeting of the season. The teams split four games last season, with the home team winning each meeting.
- November 3, 2010 in Los Angeles - Clippers 107, Oklahoma City 92 Recap Box Score
- February 22, 2011 in Oklahoma City - Oklahoma City 111, Clippers 88 Recap Box Score
- April 2, 2011 in Los Angeles - Clippers 98, Oklahoma City 92 Recap Box Score
- April 6, 2011 in Oklahoma City - Oklahoma City 112, Clippers 108 Recap Box Score
The Big Picture:
The Clippers had perhaps their biggest win of the season last night in Denver, against the Nuggets, the second best team in the West. Now, all they have to do is hop on a plane back to LA, and turn around and play the best team in the West the very next day. No big deal, right? The Clippers rode some hot shooting to beat Denver, making 14 of 30 threes in that game. It's nice if you can get those shots to fall, but the Clippers would be wise to try to get the ball inside more against the Thunder. Chris Paul appears to have shaken off the rust from his time off with a hamstring injury, scoring 25 points on 19 shots in Denver. When Paul is aggressively looking to score, the Clippers simply win, so hopefully he'll be aggressive tonight as well. The Clippers had good success against the Thunder last season, beating them twice and playing them tough a third time. I'm not sure if it's matchups or the fact that the Thunder are young, but for whatever reason the Clippers never seemed intimidated against the Thunder last season as they sometimes seemed against other teams. Of course, this Clippers team has no reason to be intimidated by anyone. Blake Griffin had big games against his hometown team last season, averaging close to 27 and 12 while shooting 60% from the floor. The Clippers could definitely use that sort of productivity tonight.
The Thunder are good, let's face it. It's hard to find much to criticize on the team. I find myself saying things like "Well, Russell Westbrook isn't that good, and they might have overpaid him" or "They haven't really played a very difficult schedule so far" and those things are true enough. But it doesn't mean this team isn't loaded. When I say something like "Westbrook probably isn't even the second best player on that team" it's as much a reflection of how good James Harden is as a criticism of Westbrook. The combination of Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Harden surely gives Oklahoma City the most explosive perimeter threesome in the league. They don't have much of a post presence on offense, but they don't really need one. They also have terrific role players in Thabo Sefolosha (role: perimeter defender), Kendrick Perkins (role: post defender) and Serge Ibaka (role: shot blocker). As evidenced by their league-best 16-3 record, these guys are good. On paper, they appear to be the best team in the Western Conference. Every other team in the conference has a least one glaring flaw -- but if this team has one, I don't see it.
- When Paul scores. The Clippers are now 1-4 on the season when Paul plays and scores fewer than 16 points. They are 7-0 when he scores more than 16. They are also 3-2 in games he has missed. Simpleformula, right? Paul scores, Clippers win.
- Soft patch in the OKC sched. The Thunder may have forgotten how to beat a good team when they face the Clippers tonight. It will be the first time in almost three weeks that they've played a team with a winning record. The Thunder are coming off eight consecutive games against teams with losing records. They are 7-1 in those games, but let's face it, they're supposed to be 7-1 against the likes of New Orleans and Detroit and New Jersey. The Clippers haven't even PLAYED eight sub-.500 teams this season, let alone eight in a row. (LA has played five games against sub-.500 teams this season, and they are 4-1 in those games.)
- Top heavy scoring. Last night in Denver, the Clippers played one of the most balanced teams in the league. We mentioned in that preview that the Nuggets don't really fit the conventional blueprint for building an NBA contender. Well, the Thunder fit it to a T. NBA Champs are usually built around superstars, and the Thunder have Durant, Westbrook, and even Harden and Serge Ibaka as up and coming stars. The Nuggets have eight players averaging at least eight points per game -- the Thunder have just three. But those three are averaging 26 (Durant), 21 (Westbrook) and 17 (Harden).
- Rested OKC. The Thunder haven't played since Friday, so they've had two days to prepare for this game. The Clippers are used to being the rested team coming into games, but that's changing now. Tonight, it's the Thunder coming off a nice long rest while the Clippers are playing a back-to-back after a tough game in Denver. That does not bode well.
- Restbwook. Wussell Restbwook tends to struggle against the Clippers. He's had six games in his career where he's shot under 10% from the field in the game, and two of those have come against the Clippers, including a 1 for 12 nightmare last season. In the last meeting between the teams last season, he finally had the first 20 point game of his career against the LAC, but in six career games playing against the Clippers in LA, he has a career average of 11 points on 28% shooting.
- Defending Durant. It seems like forever ago now, but in the midst of their 1-13 start last season, the Clippers lone win was against the Thunder. The Clippers were able to win that game primarily because they held Kevin Durant to a horrible shooting night, 6 for 24 from the field, 0 for 10 from deep. That night it was Ryan Gomes who drew the assignment. Tonight it will fall to Caron Butler initially, but it will have to be a group effort. The simple fact of the matter is there is no defense for Kevin Durant when he's on.
- Three guard lineup. The Clippers have a pretty simple problem -- three of their six best players are 6'3" or smaller. Simple math tells you that if Vinny Del Negro wants to distribute the team's minutes relatively evenly among those six, then three little guys are going to end up on the floor together at times. In fact, since Chris Paul's return, which came after Mo Williams' emergence as a scoring force off the bench, VDN has been playing three guard lineups more and more. Against the Thunder, if he plays it, one of them will be defending the 6'9" Durant -- and maybe that's OK. For long stretches of last night's game in Denver, Chauncey Billups was defending Danilo Gallinari (6'10") and that wasn't a disaster. It's not like anyone can truly stop Durant, and his primarily a perimeter player who is going to play facing the basket. So if you put a 6'3" guy on him, yes, he can shoot over the top; but if you put Butler on him, Durant's just going to go around him. It's pick your poison with Durant, and it wouldn't surprise me to see VDN go small quite a bit and at least have his best scoring team on the court. When these teams met in LA last April, Randy Foye spent a large part of the game defending Durant, so VDN has shown a willingness to defend him with a guard in the past.
- Sixth man race. There's a lot of time left in the season, but this game will feature two of the early favorites in the Sixth Man race. Along with Lou Williams in Philadelphia, James Harden and Mo Williams are the most productive bench players in the league at this point. For me, Harden is clearly the award winner as of now -- the guy's scoring efficiency is off the charts. 67% true shooting? For a perimeter player? Are you kidding me? I thought Mo's 62% TSP was good. Among guards, only Ray Allen has a higher TSP this season, and Ray Allen doesn't count.
- Efficient scorers. Researching Harden's true shooting percentage, I noticed something interesting. Both Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison also have TSPs over .600, as does Durant. Durant you might expect, but Collison and Sefolosha come as a surprise. But with Durant and Restbwook getting so much attention, other guys get a lot of open looks. The scoring efficiency of the rest of the team lies in stark contrast to the high volume, low efficiency Restbwook, who has a TSP of .524.
- Bigs. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka probably aren't going to outscore Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but they are going to make it very difficult for Griffin to score. The tandem gives Scott Brooks option on defense -- he can put the strength of Perkins on Griffin, or he can choose to go with the length of Ibaka. Griffin seemed to handle OKC fine last season, but his biggest games were before Perkins arrived.
- OKC's future. The future in Oklahoma City couldn't be brighter, except for one problem: money. This team is completely loaded, and it's also young. Eleven players on the roster are 27 or younger, and their best players (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka) are all 22 or 23 (wow!). But Durant is already making a maximum salary, and Westbrook just signed his extension for a max contract that begins next season. Harden and Ibaka are next in line to receive big pay days, and it's unknown whether owner Clay Bennett will be willing or able to pay the luxury tax to keep this group together in small market Oklahoma City. If not, the window on this group will close after next season: Harden and Ibaka can become free agents in summer 2013.
- Westbrook's deal. The new CBA contains a provision, commonly called the Derrick Rose Rule, whereby younger players become eligible for higher max contracts (up to 30% of the salary cap instead of 25%) by meeting certain criteria. One of those criterion is winning an MVP (Rose). Another is making two all NBA squads. Westbrook was second team All NBA last season, and certainly has a good chance to be chosen again this season. If he is chosen, he would become eligible for the higher maximum. However, as far as I know, the extension he signed did not include any provisions to pay him more if he does -- if so, Westbrook didn't really sign a max deal. Blake Griffin will likely be the next test case for the Rose Rule. The final criterion is to start in two All Star games, which Griffin will likely do this year and next, before his extension kicks in. I can only assume that the Clippers will offer Griffin the true maximum contract for which he is eligible, with a provision to pay him 30% of the cap if he starts in both All Star games.
- Interesting approach. Over the years, many championship teams have had defensive specialists in their starting lineup. From Dennis Rodman to Bruce Bowen, teams have recognized the value of having a stopper on the court, without concerning themselves over a loss of offensive firepower. It can even be construed as positive to have a starter out there who doesn't require touches, who doesn't need the ball. OKC has taken this philosophy to an extreme. They have not one, not two, but three players in their starting lineup who are primarily defenders (Sefolosha, Perkins and Ibaka). Sure Sefolosha is making 48% of those corner threes he takes, and Ibaka will surprise you with his shooting touch, and Perkins ... well let's face it, Perkins is a terrible scorer. But it's clear these three are on the floor mostly to defend. They only take about 14 shots per game between the three of them (half of those going to Ibaka) while Durant takes 18 and Restbwook takes 17. This phenomenon explains the unbelievable usage rates for Durant and Restbwoook. Only seven players in the league have a usage over 30; Durant and Restbwook are two of them.
- Get the Thunder perspective at Welcome to Loud City.