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Clippers Taking on Thunder in Clash of the Undefeateds

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

So far, so good. The Clippers are undefeated and there haven’t been any catastrophes as far as injuries or early-season slumps go (yes, J.J. Redick has lower percentages than we’d like at this point, but percentages have a tendency to look either really good or really bad when the denominator is small. Let’s wait another couple of games before rushing to judgements).

Next up are the Kevin Durant-less, Russell Westbrook-ful Oklahoma City Thunder in a game at the Staples Center. The visiting team would like to think it is fighting for potential playoff seeding, while the home team would like to think there will be a healthy difference in the win column come April. This game may be best seen as an opportunity to decide which side is right.

Even if it does not end up as a matchup that affects seeding (and come on, that’s not really a meaty storyline in November), wins against playoff teams matter for squads that want to go all the way. I believe it was Socrates that said “Playoff teams beat the teams everybody beats. Contenders beat the teams that nobody beats.” Or it may have been Plato.

The point is, this is another good team for Los Angeles to prove themselves against as in the journey to prove they can hang with whoever. They have already won three games by double-digits, including an impressive road victory over playoff-bound Portland in the season opener. This is a chance to make a few more people notice.

The Antagonist

No team has entered this season more crestfallen than the Thunder. The loss of Durant has for months now been widely seen as the ultimate handicapping of a contender. The days in which Oklahoma City is seen as one of the three or four true contenders in the Western Conference appear to be gone.

Don’t tell that to Westbrook, who is (as the prophecies foretold) playing like a one-man army now that he is the lone superstar in his city. Averaging a triple-double while scoring at least 30 points in every game (including a ridiculous 51 points on an equally ridiculous 44 field goal attempts against Phoenix), the man is doing his best to carry the Thunder on his back.

That effort has been good for three wins to start the year, leaving the Thunder as one of only five remaining undefeated teams in the league. However, those wins came against three of the likely five worst teams in the league (Philadelphia, Phoenix, and the Lakers). In fact, only the most recent victory against the Lakers came handily, and so there has been some quiet-for-now speculation that the Thunder are indeed in for a rough season once the going gets tougher.

A contest against the Clippers will give Westbrook and his merry band of ballers their first major test before the big one, a Western Conference Finals rematch against Golden State tomorrow night. Both games will come on the road for the Thunder, making it all the more likely that disappointment is afoot. However, the upshot is that even splitting a pair of road games against presumable contenders could go a long way towards legitimizing their aspirations.

The Backstory

As was mentioned above, the Clippers were only able to take one of four games against the Thunder last season. Westbrook was particularly effective, averaging 27.0 points, 12.3 assists, and 7.5 rebounds in these games. In all fairness, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan each missed one game in the season series while Blake Griffin missed three.

Subplots

Perhaps the most interesting development early in the season has been the success of the bench. Though three games is a small enough sample size that the numbers could start regressing to the mean rather quickly, it is also a significant enough chunk of games that it is still something. The lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights currently ranks as the 4th best in net rating among all groups in the league to play at least 16 minutes together, earning 26.9 more points than opponents per 100 possessions. While the offense of this group has been good, it is the defensive effort that has really put them above the rest.

Only seven lineups in the entire league finished with a net rating of 26.9 or higher last season, and none of them played nearly as many minutes as this group is on pace to run (also of note is that four of those seven groups played for the Warriors). In other words, don’t expect things to keep coasting along quite as nicely. Still, enjoy a good thing while you have it.

Also worth watching will be the rim protection. The Clippers rank 25th in defending shots within five feet of the hoop so far in the season (allowing a field goal percentage of 64.1). The Thunder have only executed in the middle of the pack in terms of scoring at the basket, so there is room to hope for some improvement for the Los Angeles defense. Unfortunately, Westbrook can make a lot of good things go badly when he drives to the rim, so it may not end up being a night to remember for rim protection.

The Clippers have also struggled defending in transition, giving up the fourth most points per possession (1.29) in transition, per NBA.com. As it so happens, Westbrook has scored more points in transition than any player in the league so far. If Los Angeles can’t get back quickly, this could end up being where Westbrook ends up doing a big chunk of his damage.

In other words, the name of the game on defense will really be finding a way to slow down Mr. Westbrook. That in itself may be a bit much to ask, but the Clippers will still be looking to give him the first squad of the season that he can’t beat by himself.