The Big Picture
The Clippers are now 7-1 on the season after trouncing the adorable Trail Blazers on Wednesday, with the Thunder’s defeat at the hands of the Raptors pushing LAC into the No. 1 spot in the West. Yes, they’re just one game ahead of the Thunder and Warriors, but they’re the top dogs for now. Take THAT, Bay Area.
The Clips’ lone loss of the season, of course, came against this Thunder team just last week. It was an ugly, grind-it-out affair that OKC won, 85-83. The game tonight may not be as low scoring, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see another hard-fought defensive battle. L.A. has been suffocating everyone lately, as they come into Friday atop the league in defensive rating (89.3). They have allowed their opponents to crack 90 points just once in the last five games, which is absurdly good. They limited opposing teams to fewer than 90 points 15 times all of last season, and they’ve already done that five times in 2016-17. It’s early, but this defense looks legit.
The Bad Guys
While the grit-n-grind Clippers may be the talk of the town right now, the new-look Thunder aren’t lagging too far behind on that end of the floor themselves. OKC hasn’t been quite as stingy as LAC has, but they’re still fourth in defensive efficiency. They’re about six points better than they were in 2015-16 (DRTG of 96.9 this year, 103 last year). This team still has Enes Kanter, though, so we can expect to see that number rise exponentially as the year progresses.
HILARIOUS jokes aside, this Thunder bunch was clearly built to let Russell Westbrook do everything by himself on offense and surround him with capable defenders everywhere else. Steven Adams, Domantas Sabonis, Jerami Grant and Andre Roberson have all shown lots of defensive potential. Victor Oladipo has a reputation as a quality defender, but he’s struggled to remain consistent on that end. Still, it’s not like he’s James Harden out there. The Thunder have more than enough solid individual defenders to help cover for Westbrook’s nonstop gambling and adventurous forays into passing lanes.
Adams and Roberson are the keys to the defense. Adams is a freakishly mobile center that can step out and stick with guards, which is something we don’t usually see out of seven-footers. Roberson is a rangy pest that the Thunder typically stick on the opposing team’s best winger. He saw lots of J.J. Redick in the first meeting between these teams, with Oladipo sliding up to check Luc Mbah a Moute. We figure to see a similar alignment tonight.
This is a complete flip in style from where they were last season. They nearly made it all the way to the NBA Finals largely thanks to their scoring prowess, but that’s been a struggle for them so far. Maybe having Kevin Durant helps your offense. The jury is out on that. But other teams know that everything begins and ends with Westbrook, so they can key-in on stopping him and letting the others try and beat them.
They could help offset the way teams play Westbrook by surrounding him with capable shooters, but there aren’t many legitimate gunners on the roster. Oladipo is shooting 40% from deep so far, and if he’s suddenly a capable marksman then that opens OKC’s offense up quite a bit. He’s never shot better than 34.8% from three-point range in his career to this point, though, so regression may well be in order. Sabonis, Roberson, Grant, Kanter, Alex Abrines and Kyle Singler are going to have to knock down shots in order for the Thunder to make a real run this season.
The Fancy Table
- So, this seems good:
- Westbrook scored 35 points on 14-30 shooting the last time he faced the Clippers, though he also had 10 turnovers and picked up only five assists. The Clips threw Mbah a Moute at him for large stretches, and CP3 has also shown in the past that he’s up to the challenge of defending the larger, more athletic Thunder point guard. He obviously presents a far more unique challenge than the likes of Ish Smith, Patty Mills and even Damian Lillard do.
- The Thunder were the league’s best rebounding team a season ago, and they also pulled down better than 31% of available offensive rebounds. The Clippers were among the worst teams on the glass, but this season that’s another area in which they’ve upped their intensity. L.A. ranked 29th in rebound rate in 2015-16, but they’re up to 12th in the early going this season. Blake Griffin has had plenty to do with that, as he’s posting his best numbers on the boards since his second year in the league.
- LAC’s point differential heading into this game is +16.8, which is beyond gaudy. For reference, last year’s Warriors, the most dominant regular season team of all-time, posted a differential of +10.8. They also blew a 3-1 lead and lost the NBA Finals. The Clippers’ number will obviously drop, but that’s a great indication of just how dominant they’ve been so far.
- As a team, the Clips are shooting just under 34% from three-point range this season. They finished sixth in this category a year ago at better than 36%. Plenty of room for improvement, still. I’m looking at you, 21% 3P-shooting Jamal Crawford.
- Westbrook currently owns a usage rate north of 42%, which would shatter Kobe Bryant’s single-season record of 38.7% set in 2005-06. Remember that season? Much like Westbrook now, Kobe was essentially a one-man show on offense on a team that featured such luminaries as Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Slava Medvedenko.
Game Day Song of Choice
It’s back! Multiple sources* confirm that this is without parallel the highlight of all game previews on the site.
*Sources: Taylor Smith, Taylor Smith’s cat
The Clips head to Oklahoma for the first time this season, which means we’ve got to get into that frame of mind heading into tip-off. This is obviously country music country, but because country music is trash, we’re going another route today. A few of the members of Kings of Leon grew up in Oklahoma, so that counts! Here’s a new song:
Damn, look at that camera work! Clearly professional quality.
The Clips and Thunder will get things going from the impeccably-named Chesapeake Energy Arena at 5:00pm Pacific. You can catch the game nationally on NBATV. Unless you’re Lucas, that is.