The Back Story: (Clippers lead season series 1-0)
The Big Picture:
The Clippers opened a very difficult two games in two days road trip with a win in Minnesota last night. Now they face a daunting road back-to-back against an OKC team that was 34-7 at home last season and is 4-0 at home so far this year. The Clippers didn't play huge minutes last night -- 38 for Blake Griffin, 335 for Chris Paul -- but Minneapolis to Oklahoma City is a long trip. (Ralph and Mike often speak of the difficult LA to Portland back-to-back -- this one is similar, about 100 miles closer.) When the Clippers beat the Thunder eight days ago, they did it with an impressive second half performance in which they held OKC to 41 points and outscored them by 17. But OKC played that game without starting center Kendrick Perkins, and the second half without starting power forward Serge Ibaka, who was ejected just before halftime. It was still a good win for the Clippers, but there's no doubt that it was against a diminished OKC team and the Thunder will be primed for revenge tonight. The Clippers will need a big game from Chris Paul tonight, and they'll have to hit their shots. J.J. Redick has had two straight bad shooting nights, something we just don't expect from him. Home town boy Blake Griffin has been a model of consistency, with nine 20/10 games on the season including the last five in a row.
The Thunder are 7-3 on the season, but that has come against a very soft schedule. In fact, the Thunder are only 1-3 against teams over .500, a club to which the Clippers certainly belong. OKC is fortunate to have star point guard Russell Westbrook back earlier than expected from off-season knee surgery, and fortunate as well that Westbrook's signature athleticism appears unaffected by his surgery. And of course, they have Kevin Durant, who is once again leading the NBA in scoring at almost 30 points per game. Durant is also second in minutes per game, which may prove to be a problem in the long run, but then again Durant has always played big minutes for the Thunder. Serge Ibaka is also having a very good year, filling the role of third scorer to the tune of 14 points per game along with his shot blocking a rebounding. But beyond their big three, the Thunder have more questions than answers, and we'll have to wait and see who else can contribute at a high level.
- The Questionable Blogger. Since we're seeing the Thunder for the second time in eight days, instead of another Q&A session, J.A. Sherman and I decided to do a chat about the upcoming games. The transcript of that chat is here. The same chat is posted at Welcome to Loud City, but it might be worth checking out the comment section.
- Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers defense has looked better in stretches, notably in the second half of the first meeting with the Thunder, but it hasn't been any better statistically. Before the first OKC game, basketball-reference had their defensive efficiency at 108.9 points per 100 possessions, 29th in the league. And that's still where it is. So hurray for consistency?
- Ibaka and Griffin. Something about Blake Griffin definitely gets under Serge Ibaka's skin. Last season he picked up two flagrant fouls against Griffin, and last week he was ejected for an altercation just before halftime. In front of the home crowd, with the perceived injustice of the last game fresh on everyone's mind, the OKC fans will be on Griffin from the start, despite the fact that he's a hometown hero for them. Can Ibaka keep his cool against Griffin? Can Griffin be effective without getting into foul trouble himself? And what will Kendrick Perkins have to say about all this?
- Paul. Through three quarters in Minnesota, Chris Paul was in a terrible shooting slump. He then made 6 of 7 shots in the fourth quarter including two three pointers. Is he out of his slump? The Clippers will probably need him to be aggressive and productive if they hope to win this one. Despite his poor shooting, Paul has opened the season with 12 straight games of points/assists double/doubles, a new NBA record.
- No Barnes. Matt Barnes, who was ejected along with Ibaka for his role as the third person into the altercation last week, will miss this game. He did not make the trip with the team as he recovers from an eye contusion suffered in Monday's loss to the Grizzlies. Barnes will be missed as he's one of the Clippers best suited to defending Durant.
- How good 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 last year. With Martin gone, the Thunder are relying on very young, unproven players to contribute off the bench. Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb have been fairly productive so far, but the Thunder haven't exactly played the toughest competition either. Lamb was 0-5 in the first meeting with the Clippers and Adams was pretty ordinary in a starting role in Perkins' absence.
- Soft schedule. OKC has played the second easiest schedule in the Western Conference so far. The Clippers on the other hand have played the most difficult schedule in the entire league. The Thunder are just 1-3 against teams with winning records, while the Clippers are 6-2 against winning teams.
- Against good teams. The Clippers' six wins against teams with winning records are more than any other team in the NBA. Miami has five such wins, and no other team has more than three. In other words, the Clippers have twice as many quality wins as every other team in the league other than Miami. The schedule obviously doesn't get any easier tonight in Oklahoma City, but it's got to get easier eventually, right? RIGHT?
- 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.
- TNT Game. Please let it be Marv Albert and Steve Kerr on the call. I don't think I can take another game of Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller. And I guess I just won't watch the pre-game show (though one does wonder what Barkley will have to say about Griffin outplaying his beloved Kevin Love tonight).
- Sefolosha. Thabo Sefolosha has made a career of playing defense and hitting the open three pointers that inevitably come his way playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But he opened the season in a terrible slump, missing 18 of his first 21 three pointers. He's since made 4-6 and may be back on track, which is a good thing since the Thunder will need some offense from him this season.
- Reggie Bullock. Clipper rookie Reggie Bullock played a season-high 12 minutes in Minnesota last night in the absence of Matt Barnes. He responded by making a couple of three pointers and playing good defense. He also played six minutes in the second half last week against the Thunder after Barnes' ejection, so we can expect that he'll get those same back up 3 minutes tonight. With those minutes will likely come the assignment of defending Kevin Durant. Welcome to the NBA, rook. The good news is that Bullock appears ready for his role -- he has not looked overwhelmed in his brief appearances so far.
- 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 .368 from the field, his worst shooting against any Western Conference 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. He was 7-18 -- .389, pretty close to his career average -- in the game last week.
- 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; Barnes would be the second choice but he's unavailable. The leaves Doc Rivers the option of either rookie Reggie Bullock, or the 6'3 Willie Green, or possibly Blake Griffin on Durant. None of those are good choices, but we'll probably get to see what Bullock can do.
- Small ball. In the last game, the Clippers had a nice run over the final 14 minutes of the game playing mostly small ball. That was driven in part by the fact that Perkins missed the game and Ibaka missed the second half, so OKC didn't have quality bigs to call on which forced them to go small. The Thunder liked playing Durant at the four last season, but haven't done it as much this season, partly because Martin is gone so there's less incentive to get another small on the floor.
- 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:
King Lear -- Act III, Scene 2 -- Lear
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis'd old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this! O! O! 'tis foul!