The Back Story: (Thunder swept the seasons series last year, 3-0)
The Big Picture:
The Clippers are now 3-0 at home, with all of the wins coming over likely Western Conference playoff teams. In fact, every home opponent so far has come into STAPLES Center with momentum (the Warriors and Wolves were coming off drubbings of the Lakers, the Rockets were 3-0) but they've all left with a loss. Hopefully they'll do something similar to a 5-1 OKC Thunder team. The Clippers continue to play great on offense -- and not so great on defense. The Houston game had some promising signs, but Kevin Love, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic sort of had their way with the Clippers Monday night. The good news from Monday (in addition to the win) is that Matt Barnes had his best game of the season, because the Clippers will certainly need Barnes tonight. The Clippers lost all three times they faced the Thunder last season. They had a chance to get a real statement win on National TV against the Heat last week and fell a bit short. This is an even better chance, since (a) they're at home and (b) the Thunder are not the Heat. The Clippers would love revenge, not just for the sweep, but also for the way in which it happened. You may recall the way the final Clippers-Thunder game ended -- with a crucial Serge Ibaka three point play and block moments AFTER he should have been ejected for an intentional low blow on Blake Griffin. It will definitely get chippy tonight between those two.
You pretty much need to stop two guys to handle the Thunder -- but whether the Clippers can actually do that is an open question. If it were a bit later in the season, I might say that Doc Rivers defensive game plan could slow Durant and Westbrook -- after just two weeks, I'm not so sure. The Clippers thought they had caught a real break a few weeks ago when Westbrook had an additional arthroscopic procedure on his knee -- he was supposed to miss this game and the upcoming one on November 21. Wouldn't that have been nice? Instead, the dreams of an 'easy' 2-0 start against OKC this season are gone, as Westbrook made a miraculously quick return from his surgery. I've been vocal about my feelings that the loss of Kevin Martin is going to hurt the Thunder this season, and I still think that's the case. The 5-1 start is nice -- 4-0 since Westbrook's return -- but it has been less than awe-inspiring. Three of the four wins were at home, only one was by double digits and the Clippers are their first opponent that actually made the playoffs last season (the Clippers have already faced five playoff teams). The early reviews of the 'other guys' are pretty good. Jeremy Lamb has been OK if not spectacular; Steven Adams is way ahead of schedule and could be the steal of the draft. The Thunder will need that bench scorer at some point, but if Lamb can step into that role and Adams can continue to play well, they will definitely be a force in the playoffs.
- Perkins out. [Note by Steve Perrin, 11/13/13 3:28 PM PST ] Kendrick Perkins will miss this game and OKC's game against the Warriors because of the death of his grandfather. The Clippers will get an extended look at Kiwi rookie Steven Adams. (My parents just got back from a trip to Australia and New Zealand, and all the Kiwis wanted to talk about Adams apparently -- he's a huge story there.) If Nick Collison is able to play, this could actually be a blessing in disguise for the Thunder -- Perkins is terrible and if Adams can continue to be as productive as he has been, Ibaka/Adams/Collison is probably their best big man rotation. But if Collison is out and they have to play Adams extended minutes backed up by the likes of Perry Jones and Hasheem Thabeet, then the Thunder front court is probably in for a long night.
- The Questionable Blogger. I sent some questions to our old friend J.A. Sherman from the Thunder blog Welcome to Loud City and he was nice enough to answer them. Oh, and I answered some of his questions as well. We do that sort of thing for each other. It's called teamwork.
- Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers continue to be right at the top of the league in offensive efficiency, and right at the bottom in defensive efficiency. The Thunder, who led the league in offensive efficiency last season, have clearly suffered from the absence of Westbrook in the first two games and his rust since returning; but their defense continues to be very good.
- (Their) Collison day-to-day. OKC's Nick Collison (no relation to the Clippers' Darren Collison) is day-to-day with a bruised hip. Kendrick Perkins is probably the least productive starter in the NBA, but that is balanced by the fact that Collison is one of the best backup bigs around. If Collison can't play, the Thunder will turn to rookie Steven Adams and second year player Perry Jones. Adams has given the Thunder an unexpected boost in the early season -- few expected to see the supposedly too raw center in uniform this early in the season, let alone in the rotation and contributing -- but we'll see how he does against the Clippers front line if he's the first big off the OKC bench.
- Where are the Thunder? I've been fairly vocal with my opinion that the Thunder should not be considered the front runner in the Western Conference. They lost their third best scorer and their only bench scorer when Kevin Martin signed with Minnesota, and more to the point, the real impact of trading James Harden in October 2012 will be felt this season, since Martin was a reasonable stop gap replacement. With Martin gone, the Thunder are relying on very young, unproven players to contribute off the bench. But OKC sits at 5-1, undefeated since Westbrook returned to the lineup. Jeremy Lamb has been quite good in his first six games as an NBA rotation player (18.8 PER) and rookie center Steven Adams is miles ahead of where most people thought he'd be. Adams is already in the rotation and playing more than Kendrick Perkins. If Lamb is for real and Adams gives OKC a viable alternative to the truly abysmal Perkins, the Thunder will absolutely remain a conference power.
- On the other hand. OKC's early season schedule has been pretty soft -- very soft if you think the hot starts for Dallas and Phoenix are unsustainable. In fact, in two weeks OKC has yet to face a team that made it to the playoffs last season. Tonight's game will be an interesting early season test for the Thunder.
- OKC roster additions. This off-season the Thunder added three players to their roster: rookies Steven Adams and Andre Roberson and former Clipper Ryan Gomes, 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.
- Too may Kevins. Poor Kevin Martin. He's a really, really good basketball player, and he hasn't even been the best Kevin on his own team for two seasons. Depending on your feelings about Kevin Garnett, Martin is probably the worst American named Kevin in the entire NBA. Merci a dieu for Kevin Seraphin.
- Last season. The Clippers lost three straight to the Thunder last season. In the first meeting, Chris Paul was 2-14, his worst game of the season. In the second, he was hurt and didn't play. In the third, the Clippers played a terrible first half, and then stormed back in the second half, overcoming a 19 point deficit to take the lead in the final minute before losing. Yes, OKC swept the Clippers last year, but I'm far from convinced that they had the Clippers number or anything like that.
- Serge Ibaka. Ibaka picked up flagrant fouls (both committed on Griffin) in two of three meetings between these teams last season. In the first game, which OKC won in overtime, Ibaka gave Griffin a shove -- it was ruled nothing at the time, but the league office later upgraded it to a Flagrant 1. In the final meeting, he hit Griffin below the belt -- that foul was called a Flagrant 1 on the floor, and later upgraded to a Flagrant 2. It would seem that perhaps there is something about our boy Blake that gets on Serge's nerves. I'm saying, keep on eye on this guy tonight. I'm talking to you, officiating crew. Oh, and how's about you get the calls right the first time, as opposed to having the league do it for you? It doesn't help the Clippers to get free throws and ejections after the game is over.
- ESPN game. This is the Clippers fourth national TV game in just nine games total. The TNT games make me crazy (as you have noticed). The good news is that ESPN does not have exclusive rights to this game, so those of us in greater LA (or with League Pass) can watch the Prime broadcast and listen to Ralph and Mike. I may give a listen to the ESPN pre-game -- just to see if Bill Simmons can piss me off as much as Charles Barkley does.
- Sefolosha. The Thunder have the luxury of being able to put a very effective and very long defender on Paul in Thabo Sefolosha. One major factor in the game may be how physical the refs allow Sefolosha to get with Paul. If they call it close and force Sefolosha to keep his hands off Paul, it will be advantage Clippers, but if he's allowed to crowd Paul it will be advantage Thunder.
- Best in the West. Three seasons ago, when the Clippers began the season 5-21 and then went 27-29 over the final four months, some of us wondered if they were on the OKC track, as the Thunder had had a very similar in-season improvement in 08-09 before winning 50 games and making the playoffs the following season. Trading for Chris Paul accelerated the Clippers rise, but overall it's been surprisingly similar in terms of results. With teams like the Mavericks and Lakers finally succumbing to the effects of age, and a similar fate awaiting San Antonio eventually, it could be the Clippers and the Thunder battling for Western supremacy for many years to come (though the Rockets and Warriors and Wolves may have something to say about that).
- Restbwook's woes. Wussell Restbwook has had some major struggles against the Clippers. In his career against the LAC, he's shooting .367 from the field, his worst shooting against any opponent. He has had games of 1-12, 1-11 and 3-14 among other dreadful outings against the Clippers. He's only scored 20 or more in six of 18 career games, and one of those was that 3-14 game where he got to the line a lot. The vast majority of his truly terrible outings have come here in L.A. Is it possible that Wussell presses too hard playing in his hometown? He's actually scored 26 and 29 in his last two road games against the Clippers, so maybe the curse is lifter. Monday night Kevin Martin scored 30, and he used to struggle against the Clippers as well. Turns out, career averages don't really determine individual game results.
- 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 scoring ability of a demi-god. No one can guard him; that's why he continually leads the league in scoring (he's doing it again this season). Dudley is smart and tenacious and we know he'll work hard; Matt Barnes will come in and make Durant work as well. That combo of Dudley and Barnes (assuming Dudley's knees allow him to be out there) is about as good a tag-team as the Clippers have had to put on Durant in a long time.
- Small ball. The Thunder spent a lot of time with Durant at the four last season, but don't seem to be doing it this year. Rookie Steven Adams has been able to give them surprisingly quality minutes early, making their front court depth a bit better -- turns out Adams is better than Hasheem Thabeet. Nick Collison is questionable for this game, but they've also used Perry Jones some -- so Durant has played mostly the three this season. Could the Clippers go small anyway, matching up Dudley on Ibaka or maybe Jones when he's in? Maybe, but I doubt it.
- Connections. Blake Griffin was born and raised in Oklahoma near Oklahoma City and played his college ball at OU in Norman. Thunder coach Scoot Brooks was on the Clippers for about a month in January 1999, though he never got into a game. Byron Mullens began his NBA career with the Thunder, where he barely played in his first two seasons in the league. Ryan Gomes last played in the NBA for the Clippers, where he was the consolation prize after LAC missed out on LeBron in the summer of 2010. The Clippers eventually amnestied Gomes and he played in Germany last season. Why OKC signed him is anybody's guess. 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.
- Shakespearean reference:
Sonnet XIV (14)
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
. Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
. Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.