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Clippers-Thunder Preview: Surviving the Storm

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As the Clippers look to regroup after back-to-back losses in Texas, they welcome an old playoff rival to STAPLES Center.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
2015-16 NBA Regular Season
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Oklahoma City Thunder (18-9)

Los Angeles Clippers (16-12)
December 21, 2015 — 7:30 PM PDT
STAPLES Center — Los Angeles, CA
Prime Ticket, NBA TV, The Beast 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Win-Loss Breakdown ('15-'16)
18-9 Record 16-12
6-7 East 6-3
12-2 West 10-9
5-0 Division 3-3
13-3 Home 10-5
5-6 Road 6-7
6-9 .500+ 5-9
12-0 .500– 11-3
2-0 OT 1-0
7-3 L10 6-4
Projected Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Chris Paul
Andre Roberson SG J.J. Redick
Kevin Durant SF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Serge Ibaka PF Blake Griffin
Steven Adams C DeAndre Jordan
Efficiency Stats ('15-'16)
98.9 (11th) Pace 98.8 (T-12th)
108.2 (2nd) OffRtg 103.9 (6th)
99.1 (8th) DefRtg 101.6 (15th)
9.1 (3rd) NetRtg 2.3 (10th)
Injury Report

Austin Rivers (ankle) doubtful
'14-15' Season Series (Clippers beat Thunder, 2-1)
Date
Venue
Final
Clips Nation Recap
NBA Box Score
10/30/2014
Los Angeles
Clippers 93, Thunder 90
Recap
Box Score
2/8/2015
Oklahoma City
Thunder 131, Clippers 108
Recap
Box Score
3/11/2015
Oklahoma City
Clippers 120, Thunder 108
Recap
Box Score

The Big Picture:

Oh, how things can change in just one weekend. Just a few days ago, the Clippers had won 9 of 11 games, signs of improvement were abound, positivity was running high. Then, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens was amassing more than $200 million, the Clippers were being humbled by the Dark Side of Texas, losing on consecutive nights to the Spurs and Rockets. Suddenly, the Clippers are once again facing the severity of their quest to overthrow the leaders of the Western Conference. Here they stand in their own Empire Strikes Back, repairing wounds like Luke Skywalker, planning their triumphant comeback. The next episode worked out pretty well for Luke. Will it also do so for the Clippers?

The Antagonist:

One place. Two and a half games. That's all that separates the Thunder and the Clippers in the standings. So why do they feel galaxies apart? Is it that Oklahoma City's two stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, rank 2nd and 3rd in the NBA in PER, while one of the Clippers' own celestial bodies, Chris Paul, struggles to match his own lofty standards while battling a litany of injuries? Or is it that the Thunder are third in the league in net rating, trailing only the history-chasing Warriors and Spurs, as the Clippers muddle along in 10th amidst a pack of solid-but-not-spectacular Eastern Conference teams. The Thunder are as far from fourth-place Cleveland as the Clippers are from 21st-place disappointment Houston. To be fair, Oklahoma City is not above questioning, as first-year NBA coach Billy Donovan looks to prove that he can effectively steer a championship contender, and deeply flawed young players like Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter work to silence the many doubts that they can effectively hold down important complementary roles. So far though, Oklahoma City seems to have answered the most important question: With Kevin Durant back from injury, will the Thunder rejoin the NBA's elite? Yes, it appears they have.

The Subplots:

  • Comparison of Key Metrics. The Thunder are holding the Clippers' customary spot near the top of the NBA's list of offensive leaders. Durant, Westbrook and company are scoring more than four points more per 100 possessions than their LA opponents. How much of that difference can be credited to offensive rebounding? The Thunder come into tonight leading the whole damn league with a 29.9% offensive rebounding rate, almost 2% better than #2 Detroit. (It turns out Enes Kanter is good for something.) Will this bear watching tonight? It's not like the Clippers have struggled on the boards, right? Wait, don't answer that...
  • Schedule. Beginning tomorrow, three full days of rest before a Christmas "road" tilt at STAPLES Center against the hated ones.
  • Kevin Durant is back, and he's still good. You know what else has helped give potency to the Thunder's offense? Kevin Durant. Yeah, I know, it's shocking. Last year, Durant played just 27 games and the Thunder finished a mediocre 17th in True Shooting %. They're 2nd this year. I don't think it's a coincidence.
  • Austin Rivers likely out. The younger Rivers is listed as doubtful to play tonight, and according to some reports, even that sounds optimistic. You know who else should be optimistic? Those who like to watch competent point guard play. Pablo Prigioni should get some welcome minutes backing up Chris Paul.
  • Westbrook vs CP3. In their last matchup back in March, the Clippers handled the Thunder behind an inspired performance by Chris Paul. The Point God's defense was particularly noteworthy, as he helped hassle Westbrook into a 5-for-14 shooting night. Paul held Westbrook to just 33% shooting across all three of last season's matchups, of which the Clippers won two. Of course, less than a year prior to that, the Thunder bested the Clippers in a six-game postseason series in which Russell looked unfazed by Paul's physicality. This matchup should go a long way to deciding tonight's game.
  • Durant vs ??? Much to the disgust of many of Clips Nation's frequent readers and commenters, the Clippers have been lit up by some of the league's most anonymous small forwards. Of course, tonight's opposing small forward is anything but. Durant has seemingly picked up right where he left off before last season's injury. However, in previous matchups, the Clippers haven't had a perimeter defender the likes of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The UCLA forward hasn't seen much action beyond the opening minutes of each half, but it will be interesting to see whether Doc Rivers gives him a chance to check Durant in each half's closing minutes too.
  • For the Thunder's point of view, head over to Welcome to Loud City.
  • The rest. With a loss tonight, the Clippers will fall to .500 against Western Conference opponents... Things won't get easier for the NBA's leaders in technical fouls. The Clippers must face past agitators Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams. According to sportingcharts.com, the Clippers come in to tonight with 29 techs as a team, 4 more than second-place Phoenix.