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Clippers-Thunder: It begins where it ended

The Clippers were dreadful in the preseason. But then again, so were the Thunder. OKC will be opening the season without the league's reigning MVP Kevin Durant, on the second night of a back to back (SEGABABA) after getting routed late by Portland.

Stephen Dunn
2014/2015 NBA Regular Season
thunder logo
0-0 (57-25 last season)

0-1 (59-23 last season)
October 30th, 2014, 7:30 PM
TNT, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown (2013-2014)
21-9 East 23-7
36-16 West 36-16
34-7 Home 34-7
23-18 Road 25-16
25-18 .500+ 27-16
32-7 .500- 32-7
7-3 L10 6-4
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Russell Westbrook
J.J. Redick SG Andre Roberson
Matt Barnes SF Perry Jones
Blake Griffin PF Serge Ibaka
DeAndre Jordan C Steven Adams
Advanced Stats (2013-2014)
98.39 (7th of 30) Pace 97.91 (9th of 30)
109.4 (1st of 30) ORtg 108.1 (7th of 30)
102.1 (8th of 30) DRtg 101.0 (5th of 30)
Glen Davis (groin) doubtful
Kevin Durant (foot surgery) out

Anthony Morrow (MCL sprain) out

Mitch McGary (foot) out

Reggie Jackson (foot) out

Jeremy Lamb (foot) out

Grant Jerrett (foot) out

The Back Story (The teams split the season series last season, 2-2):

Date Venue Final

11/13/13 Los Angeles Clippers 111, Thunder 103 Recap Box
11/21/13 Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Clippers 91 Recap Box
02/23/14 Oklahoma City Clippers 125, Thunder 117 Recap Box
04/09/14 Los Angeles Thunder 107, Clippers 101 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The best season in Clippers franchise history ended at the hands of the Thunder last May, in a 4-2 Western Conference semifinals series loss. The Clippers were poised to take a 3-2 lead with an opportunity to close out the series on their home court when they blew a seven point lead in the final 49 seconds of Game 5 (with the help of a few dubious calls from the officiating crew). That loss — and the subsequent Game 6 defeat that ended their season — has haunted the Clippers for over five months, and no one more so than team leader Chris Paul, who made the final three mistakes in Game 5. The Clippers will desperately want to avenge that loss and get this season off to a great start.

A dreadful 2-6 preseason didn't exactly instill an abundance of confidence in the team, but hopefully this is a team that won't require preseason wins to feel confident. The good news from preseason is that Blake Griffin looked better than ever (at least on offense) and while Paul was somewhat mediocre in the exhibition games, there's little question that he'll be great when the games count. The big question mark for the Clippers comes at the three spot, where Jared Dudley and Danny Granger are gone from last season's team, and where Matt Barnes was truly terrible in the preseason. Fortunately, facing an Oklahoma City team without the services of Kevin Durant, the small forward position probably won't be enough to doom them, at least not tonight.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder enter the new season with a series of questions, one that outweighs all the others — how good are they without Kevin Durant? The Thunder have won 50, 55, 47 (out of 66), 60 and 59 games over the past five seasons, taking two trips to the conference finals and one to the NBA Finals in the process. But that was all accomplished with Durant, the league's MVP last season and without a doubt one of the two most dominant players in the league. Durant only missed six games in those five seasons, and was among the league leaders in minutes per game to boot. How good can the Thunder be without him? There's simply no data on which to base an answer.

What we do know is that longtime sidekick Russell Westbrook will have his chance to be the lead dog (something he seemed to try to do even when Durant was healthy). No one will be complaining about Westbrook taking shots that should have gone to Durant for the next month — and Russ won't shy away from the opportunity. He was truly great against the Clippers in the playoffs last season, so he may well be ready for the full spotlight. But even if he steps up, it may be too much to ask of him to carry the team by himself. Serge Ibaka is obviously a very good player, and an improving offensive player, but the vast majority of the OKC offense is going to have to come from Westbrook until Durant's return. For tonight's game, the Thunder have problems that go beyond Durant's absence, with six players out. But all those other names don't much matter — it's all about sticking around with Durant for OKC.

Oklahoma City comes into tonight's tilt on a SEGABABA, after getting beaten by Portland last night at the Rose Garden, 106-89. Russell Westbrook was transcendent through the first three quarters, scoring 36 and singlehandedly keeping the Thunder in the game (they even led after three). But the Blazers finally found their footing (and their shot) in the fourth quarter, outscoring OKC 31-12 and turning a close game into a rout. The Thunder's second leading scorer was Lance Thomas (14), a training camp invite who hadn't scored that much in two years.

It seemed as if the shorthanded Thunder (missing rotation cogs Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Anthony Morrow, in addition to Durant) ran out of steam in the final frame, and that'll be something to keep an eye on in the second night of a back-to-back. If the Clippers come out like gangbusters, they may be able to put this one away in the first half itself.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. Going by efficiency numbers, the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder were the three best teams not just in the West but in the NBA last season — and it wasn't particularly close. Both the Clippers and Thunder were top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency, making them second and third in efficiency differential, with the Clippers holding a slight edge there. The Thunder were the better defensive team, while the Clippers were the best offensive team in the league. Of course, all of that happened with a healthy Kevin Durant for the Thunder.
  • The Thunder without Durant. The story of this game is obviously the absence of Durant, who had surgery a couple of weeks ago to repair a Jones fracture in his foot and will miss at least the first month of the season. Durant is the reigning NBA MVP and obviously incredibly important to OKC. How important? We don't have much clue, to be honest, since they've almost never played without him. He has played a ton of games and a ton of minutes per game over the past six seasons, and the Thunder have almost never been without him for any sustained period of time — certainly not for a month.
  • Tough start. As if the loss of Durant and a slew of other guys weren't enough, the Thunder have a brutal first two games, a road back-to-back in Portland and LA. That Oregon to SoCal flight is a lot longer than people think, making this one of the tougher back-to-backs that teams encounter over the course of a season.
  • OKC Lineup. See that Thunder starting lineup in the table a couple inches above where you're reading right now? Yeah, who knows going forward? Russell Westbrook will start. Serge Ibaka will start. And beyond that, it's anyone's guess. The other three starters from last season are either gone (Thabo Sefolosha) or injured (Durant) or useless (Kendrick Perkins). Steven Adams seems to have officially won the starting job over Perkins — but Scott Brooks stuck with Perkins much longer than he should have, so it's possible he'll go back to him. (Perkins has been dealing with a sore quad as well, leaving Adams as the preseason starter almost by default.) As for the wings, there's no easy answer. Andre Roberson and Perry Jones start tonight almost by default as the only two wings who are healthy. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Clipper killer Anthony Morrow will all be in the conversation when healthy. The WTLC crew did a round table on the starting lineup after Durant's injury, and five writers came up with five different lineups. Morrow, one of the great three point shooters in the league, injured his MCL last week and will miss the first month or so.
  • Only STAPLES meeting. In quite a strange scheduling quirk, this is the only time during the regular season that these teams will meet in LA. Which means that NBA fans in the City of Angels will have to stoop to attending a Lakers game if they want to see Durant this season (that is unless the Clippers and Thunder meet again in the playoffs, a distinct possibility). Each season, there are four teams from the Western Conference that the Clippers meet just three times instead of four — this season, one of those teams is OKC, with the rubber match happening in Oklahoma. This can be significant for playoff seeding, where head-to-head is one of the tie-breakers for home court advantage. The Thunder have the advantage of two home games out of three against the Clippers this season — and by the way, both of those will be long after Durant is expected back.
  • Westbrook. The Thunder will only stay connected with the top teams in the Western Conference during Durant's absence if Westbrook plays like a top five NBA player, which according to's rankings, he is. Westbrook is a physical marvel and a stunning talent, but has never been a particularly efficient scorer. In years past, taking inefficient shots has led to criticism that he was taking shots away from Durant, one of the most efficient scorers in the league. But during Durant's absence, he'll have the greenest of lights — not that he ever needed one (Update: Westbrook scored 38 last night against Portland, on only 26 shots).
  • The Westbrook. For a few years now I've been a proponent of a new NBA stat -- the Westbrook. That is a pull up jumper of 20 feet or more on a possession during which only the shooter actually touches the ball in the front court and there are more than 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Bonus points if the jumper is contested.
  • Ibaka and Griffin. Something about Blake Griffin definitely gets under Ibaka's skin. Two seasons ago he picked up two flagrant fouls against Griffin, and in the first meeting last year he was ejected for an altercation just before halftime. Then they faced each other six more times in the NBA Playoffs, where things got really serious. Can Ibaka keep his cool against Griffin tonight? Can Griffin be effective without getting into foul trouble himself? Oh, and for every cheap shot that Ibaka delivers, Steven Adams gets in two more.
  • Sefolosha. Thabo Sefolosha might not have been a huge loss for the Thunder — but he's a loss to be certain. Two seasons ago he overachieved in his three point shooting, making him the classic 3-and-D guy. He was still a terrific defender last season — but his shooting came back to earth, making him more of a liability on offense even though he was still their best wing defender. Against the Clippers, Brooks would frequently choose to put Sefolosha's length on Chris Paul, an option no longer available to him. There's also the issue of defending Paul and Jamal Crawford when they're playing together. Unless one of the young wings provides a surprise, the Thunder simply don't have another wing defender of Sefolosha's quality. The Clippers know all too well what this league can do against second-tier wing defenders.
  • Year over year. The Thunder had improved their winning percentage for five consecutive seasons before failing to do so last year. Five ties an NBA record. The Clippers just finished their fifth straight season with an improved winning percentage, so they have a chance to break the record this season if they can win 58 or more games.
  • Restbwook's woes. Wussell Restbwook will have to carry the Thunder in this game with Durant, but he has had some major regular season struggles against the Clippers. In his career against the LAC, he's shooting just .372 from the field in 22 regular season games, his worst shooting against any Western Conference opponent. He has had games of 1-12, 1-11, 3-13 and 3-14 among other dreadful outings against the Clippers. He's only scored 20 or more in seven of 22 career games, and one of those was that 3-14 game where he got to the line a lot. Having said all that, he was nothing short of spectacular in the playoffs last season, playing probably the best sustained basketball of his entire career against the Clippers when it really counted.
  • Connections. Blake Griffin was born and raised in Oklahoma near Oklahoma City and played his college ball at OU in Norman. Ekpe Udoh is also an Oklahoma native. Russell Westbrook is an LA kid and obviously played his college ball at UCLA. Udoh and Perry Jones both played at Baylor, though Jones arrived just after Udoh had departed. Thunder coach Scoot Brooks was on the Clippers for about a month in January 1999, though he never got into a game. Former Clipper Sebastian Telfair signed as a free agent with the Thunder this offseason — I didn't even know he was still in the league. Chris Paul played his first two seasons in Oklahoma City while the Hornets were displaced from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 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.
  • Wikipedia entry: Thunder is the sound caused by lightning. Depending on the distance and nature of the lightning, thunder can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble (brontide). The sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning. In turn, this expansion of air creates a sonic shock wave, similar to a sonic boom, which produces the sound of thunder, often referred to as a clapcrack, or peal of thunder. The distance of the lightning can be calculated by the listener based on the time interval from when the lightning is seen to when the sound is heard.