For the fourth meeting between the Clippers and the Thunder, we have a fourth conversation with JA Sherman from SBNation's Thunder blog Welcome to Loud City. To keep it fresh, he suggested that we each address the following three part question:
What did we learn through 3 games, what do we expect tonight, and what does it tell us about the month of May?
As an extra treat, JA went back to the list of questions you submitted prior to the last game and picked one bonus question to answer. So that's fun.
1) What did we learn?
I took away three main points from the first three games:
a) The Thunder do not get rattled playing from behind but do tend to have bad lapses in the process. In game one, the Clippers started out red hot, as NBA teams sometimes do. What really killed the Thunder though was right at the end of the first half. After trailing by double digits on the road for most of the first half, the Thunder had battled back to whittle the Clipper lead to a mere seven points, a manageable deficit on the road. However, over the next 45 seconds, the Thunder completely lost their composure and the Clippers hit four 3-pointers in a row. During that span, the Thunder aided in the shooting clinic by committing 3 turnovers and missing every shot they took. Suddenly the deficit ballooned from seven back up to 18. Recovering from big deficits early in games is always manageable, but the Thunder have to be better prepared for the inevitable swoons that can completely undo all of their hard work.
b) Game 2 showed that the Thunder from top to bottom have superior talent compared to the Clippers, but winning against them all starts with how they defend Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook played an outstanding defensive game against Paul, committing to staying in front of him and fight through the screens the Clippers use. Westbrook is athletic enough to defend almost any guard in the NBA, as long as he is committed to just staying in front of his man. Where Westbrook gets tripped up though is when he thinks he can get just a little bit more of the cookie, and we saw Paul turn Westbrook's defense on its head in game 3 during the Clips' 4th quarter comeback.
c) Game 3 showed me specifically that the Clippers should be able to survive in the playoffs as long as they make a stronger effort to rebound the basketball. Your shooters are pretty good but can be a bit streaky. I absolutely think that the combination of Butler, Foye, and Young can win some games with their perimeter shooting, but when they all go cold, how will the team respond? It is during those times when the Clips have to dig out offensive rebounds, give Paul additional possessions with which to work, and turn the game into a 4th quarter affair.
Conversely, OKC has to do a better job at producing good possessions at the ends of games. Durant and the gang have the talent, but KD cannot let a smaller guy like Nick Young check him on a consistent basis.
2) What do we expect tonight?
I expect to see a very ticked off Thunder team tonight. I always hate to use the phrase "my team gave away the game," because nothing ever happens in a vacuum, but I do believe that the Thunder wasted a number of opportunities in the 1st half of Game 3 that could have easily pushed the lead to double digits. Perhaps CP3 could have still led the comeback, but in what ended up being a 2 point game, it was less likely.
The entire 4th quarter sequence of that game though really underscores the difference between a veteran-led team and a team that still is learning. If you can put the ball in the hands of a guy like Paul (or the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, or Kobe Bryant), who has seen virtually everything there is to see, more often than not a positive play will result. Those guys know how to manufacture points. What I saw at the end of that game was Paul figuring out how to manufacture points and Durant failing to do so. KD had Nick Young on him most of the 4th quarter, but time and time again Durant made it easier on Young by shooting outside shots instead of taking him to the block for closer shots and possible free throws.
Tonight's game is going to be a fun and competitive one, but in the end I think it will come down to which of those two players can manufacture points the best.
3) What does it tell us about May?
For the Clippers, I think the biggest concern I would have is that you've got this huge player in DeAndre Jordan who is athletic and has a long reach, and yet only averages around eight rebounds per game. I haven't watched him enough this season to say whether he has played up to expectations, but I think he needs to be the kind of player who just sucks up all of the conventional rebounds available. We know that Blake Griffin is a double-digit rebounder and collects a lot of the loose-ball type plays, but he needs to have a rebounding anchor next to him who can just stay close to the rim and prevent offensive rebounds by the other team. If Jordan can make that playoff leap, I think it really changes the picture for the Clippers because they would have a much better time contending with a team like Memphis or the Lakers. If the Clips can figure out how to give Paul 3-4 more possessions in a game, that could mean the difference between winning and losing a seven game series.
For the Thunder, I think that playing against the Clips has showed us that OKC still needs to learn how to value possessions better. Early on in the season the main culprit was turnovers. While that problem seems to be under a bit better control, I still feel that the Thunder as a team are prone to taking too many quick shots. When OKC takes quick shots, it reduces their considerable abilities against the other team's defense. The Thunder need to learn to make the opposing defense work for the full shot clock. By contrast, I love the way CP3 always waits to pick up his dribble for as long as he can so that he can use as much of the 24 second shot as possible. He wants to make the defense work. If the Thunder could grow a bit in this area, it would make their offense much more dynamic and enable them to value their possessions to a higher degree.
Bonus Answer to the ego stroke disguised as a question:
Citizen Muckduck: Talent-wise the Thunder's big three (Westbrook, Durant, and Harden) are worse than the Heat's big three (James, Wade, and Bosh). Not by much, of course, but it's pretty apparent. I'd say Durant, James, and Wade are among the four or five best players in the league with Westbrook being in the teens, and both Bosh and Harden being fringe top twenty players.
If you disagree then prove me wrong and convince me otherwise.
But the Thunder just look and so far have been so much better offensively. I don't think this is on the role players because I believe the Heat's role players are better especially offensively.
My belief is that this all stems from the fact that Durant's a legitimate shooter something Lebron isn't really and something Wade could never claim to be. The Heat have the problem (and it's a good one to have) of having two transcendent players that have almost the same exact skill set, which leads to issues in meshing together.
The Thunder's two best players, however, are at the opposite ends of the spectrum which leads to a better or at least easier ability to mesh.
Do you think this is about right and I'm awesome or is it something else and I'm not so awesome?
Also, while you're at it the Spurs seem to have OKC's number in one on one matchups, how do you objectively feel about a possible WCF matchup against them?
JA Sherman: Let's see if I can compose an answer that is actually shorter than the actual question:
a) I'd probably take issue with Wade being one of the top 5 players THIS season. I don't think he's been at his historical level of play (injures have played a part). If we pretend for a moment that Westbrook is a shooting guard, I think he has played at a higher level over the course of the season. Therefore, LeBron is a little better than Durant, but I think Westbrook is a little better than Wade.
b) OKC's combo works better because both Durant & Westbrook have learned to play without the ball in their hands all the time. Therefore, it is a little bit easier for each to set the other up in a more organic manner.
c) I don't think the Heat role players are playing as well as last season, and I put Bosh in this camp. I wouldn't take Bosh over Serge Ibaka right now. Bosh is slightly better offensively, but Ibaka is always a potential game-changer with his shot-blocking and defense.
d) The Spurs scare me because OKC hasn't learned how to guard perimeter shooters well, so SA carves up OKC at the 3-point line. We saw the same in the Thunder-Clippers game 1.
e) Muckduck: hits 8.2 on the awesome scale, with a Westbrook/Griffin dunk being a perfect 10 and the Clippers' drafting Michael Olowokandi at #1 a perfect 0.0.