OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the saying goes, a series doesn't start until one team wins on the other team's homecourt.
And as much as the Clippers talked about their desire to stock up with another road win, they played in Game 2 as if their job was done after Monday night.
As expected, the Oklahoma City crowd was as jacked as ever. One Thunder employee told me that it likely topped the atmosphere of the two NBA Finals games that OKC hosted in 2012 and the night that Scott Brooks got his Coach of the Year trophy in 2010. I'm still not sure what Adam Silver said to Kevin Durant during his pre-game MVP ceremony. The building was rocking and it had a clear impact on the start of the game.
The tone was set on the very first play of the night. The Clippers came out of the gates trying to get Blake Griffin the ball on the right block. Durant smothered Matt Barnes on the wing, preventing him from making an entry pass, and when Barnes tried to swing it back to Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook shot out of a cannon to knock the ball away, just barely missing out on an easy dunk attempt going the other way.
The intensity shown on that first play was a sign of things to come. While Durant cooled down after his 5-of-6 start (12 points in the first seven minutes), Westbrook's never motor never stopped running all night long. Even on his best nights Westbrook can make reckless decisions, but this is the kind of game that makes it very obvious why the Thunder are going to put up with his head-scratching decisions. He was flying all over the court, pulling down impossible offensive rebounds, getting to the basket with ease in transition and causing a lot of havoc with his energy defensively.
Westbrook's final assist may have been the product of home cooking, but you are kidding yourself if one extra assist is what made his night special. Westbrook's six offensive rebounds were critical and he toed the line between attacking the smaller defenders the Clippers had on him and making the right reads when the help came as well as he ever as. In particular, Westbrook ruthlessly attacked his former UCLA teammate Darren Collison, a minus defender in general that is at a massive disadvantage against the bigger Westbrook. Westbrook took him to the post, crossed him over in the halfcourt and went right at him with a head of steam on the break, getting to the rim with ease.
And that's where we saw the biggest dropoff in performance for the Clippers from Game 1 to Game 2. Westbrook was able to get by his man a good amount on Monday night, but Los Angeles did a good job of protecting the paint. In this one, either Westbrook was able to finish over length at the rim or there was nobody in sight. In the second half the wheels began to fall off for the Clippers and they had several critical defensive breakdowns that lead to easy basket after easy basket for Oklahoma City. Nobody could stay in front of Westbrook and a few times DeAndre Jordan was caught absentmindedly guarding Kendrick Perkins 10 feet from the rim rather than sagging off to protect the paint.
The rotations were either late or from the wrong spots and the players were often confused by what is a very rudimentary Thunder offense. In that pivotal third quarter, Los Angeles ceded a dunk to Serge Ibaka because two defenders stayed with Durant on OKC's standard pindown without having Jordan in the paint to stop Ibaka on the roll. Rivers was furious with his team's defense in the third and took two timeouts in the span of three possessions at one point because his guys weren't communicating or executing.
To make matters worse, the Clippers compounded a lack of awareness defensively with a total lack of effort and inexcusable carelessness.
Westbrook is going to sky for some offensive rebounds even if you're making a conscious effort to keep him off the glass because he's a freak athlete, but letting him generate six extra possessions by himself while giving up 15 offensive rebounds to the Thunder as a team (which led to 17 second chance points) is all about effort, and there were a few times in the second half when a Thunder player came from out of nowhere to nab the offensive board while a Clipper player stood motionless. And once Oklahoma City started to roll, we saw things like lazy inbounds passes after made baskets, one of which was stolen by Thabo Sefolosha, eventually leading to a Westbrook three that put the Thunder up 17 with 2:48 left in the third.
What's crazy is that the Clippers had a legitimate shot to win this game early on. They responded to Durant's hot start by knocking down their first four threes and it was just a five point deficit at the half. But a combination of early foul trouble for Paul, which prolonged the stretches during which Collison was on Westbrook, and poor outside shooting (after their 4-of-4 start, LA went 5-of-23 from deep) eventually doomed the Clippers, particularly after they let the Thunder get the mental edge with their explosive run in the third quarter.
The Clips had reason to be upset with the way the game was called when Oklahoma City started to get going. A couple of very questionable illegal screen calls helped the Thunder keep the momentum and it also got Jordan off the floor with foul trouble. But Rivers felt like the team got too caught up in arguing with the officials instead of focusing on the game, and that was obvious in LA's crucial mental lapses.
As disappointing as it is to have such a poor performance in such a key game, the Clippers are likely taking comfort in the fact that they did what they needed to over these first two games. The Clippers knew how the Thunder were going to come out after losing Game 1- they themselves were in this same exact position in Game 2 in the first round against the Warriors, and they delivered a blowout win just like OKC did last night - and unfortunately they caved once Oklahoma City started playing with desperation.
It was a less than ideal way to lose, but if you flipped the results of Games 1 and 2, nobody would be upset right now. The Clippers were never going to sweep the Thunder, but now that they are heading back to Los Angeles with homecourt advantage, they're still in a great position to beat them.
Griffin's play was likely the biggest subplot of this game. Even though he didn't shoot well in Game 1, I thought Griffin played well because of his playmaking from the foulline. In this game, though, the Clippers didn't run quite as many high pick-and-rolls, and the result was a less than impressive all-around effort from LA's superstar. Griffin clanked a lot of jumpers, he fell asleep defensively and he pulled down just six boards in a game in which the Clippers got outrebounded by 16.
Griffin was somewhat responsible for the lower frequency of high pick-and-rolls, as was Paul's early foul trouble. Doc Rivers praised Griffin after Game 1 for recognizing what was making the offense click and seeking out CP3 to run pick-and-roll every chance he got. Things were a bit different in this game. Watch here how Griffin tries to isolate against Serge Ibaka rather than flowing into another pick-and-roll with Paul.
It goes without saying that Griffin is going to get post touches in this series, but he doesn't seem to have much of a plan here. He dribbles off of the block and calls for DeAndre Jordan to come set him a screen. Once Kendrick Perkins switches onto him, he pirouettes and turns the ball over.
On the prior possession, Griffin was left wide open for a mid-range jumper because the Thunder had two defenders flying at J.J. Redick in the corner. Now, Griffin has obviously made some strides with his jumper this year and it can be a useful shot in some situations. But in this spot, when the only defender in front of him is Perkins, who is occupied by Jordan, don't you want Griffin to put the ball on the floor and aggressively attack the rim? Either he's going to draw Perkins' help, freeing Jordan for the lob, or he's going to Mozgov Perkins again. Instead, he hesitates, long the bane of the effectiveness of his jumper, and tries to bank it in.
You have to credit Ibaka. I thought he did a great job of getting back in transition to make sure Griffin never got easy looks by running the floor and he also defended Griffin well in isolation, which had previously been the knock on Ibaka's defensive game. Watch here how he keeps Blake from getting to the middle, shading his right side to force him to attack going left. Because Ibaka is so athletic and long, he's able to give Griffin the driving lane while still being able to recover.
These are some things that Griffin can work on improving and you can live with him having an off night with his shot against a defense that has him well scouted. What can not be overlooked, however, is how little he contributed on the glass and as a defender. When your offensive game is MIA, you have to find other ways to make an impact, and Griffin wasn't up to the task in Game 2.
Westbrook's performance in Game 2 was special. It's one of the many things that I love about basketball. So many players are great in so many different ways. The variance in how Chris Paul gets a triple-double and how Rajon Rondo gets a triple-double and how Westbrook got his last night* shows the world class variety of the league.
Westbrook catches a lot of flak for his play style and much of it is deserved, but can you blame a guy for playing like he thinks he is unstoppable when he is, well, unstoppable?
I'm just not sure what you are supposed to do with that. Obviously, you have to build a wall behind the initial defender in hopes that Westbrook stops short of the paint and pulls up for that inefficient mid-range jumper, but even that strategy isn't enough when Westbrook is on.
Here he blows right by Paul, who had to play conservatively because of his foul trouble, and challenges Jordan right at the rim.
And though Westbrook definitely has his selfish sabbaticals, he did a great job of getting others involved in Game 2. Watch here how he backs down Collison, sees Griffin coming over to help and has the patience to wait for Griffin to fully commit before finding Ibaka for the wide open jumper.
On this momentous play in the third quarter, we see both sides of Westbrook. Initially he makes a great find of Durant on the dive to the rim off of his pindown screen, but after Durant gets swatted, the ball ends up in his hands again. Backed up a few feet behind the three-point line, Westbrook takes a couple of dribbles and accelerates right past Paul on his way to a massive throwdown.
Westbrook may not shoot this well again in this series, but his multifaceted approach to Game 2 was an important development for the Thunder. And the Clippers have to make sure that they don't let Westbrook get as many great looks at the rim as he did last night if they want to close out this series.
Many thanks to Justin Russo for his help with the GIFs.