In a lot of ways, the Clippers and Thunder aren't all that different right now. The comparison is more than just skin-deep; it goes beyond both teams' mediocre logos and terrible uniforms. Their rosters mirror each other closely in their construction: two superstars (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), a defensive bulwark excelling at certain offensive skills (Jordan, Ibaka), and a solid fourth option (Redick, Adams — although the former is far superior) surrounded by inconsistent and/or flawed players. Like Los Angeles, Oklahoma City also has a big problem on the wings, and their options at shooting guard (Roberson, Waiters, Foye, and Morrow) are reminiscent of the Clippers' issues on the wing the last few years.
Although they've never been ahead of the Clippers by more than four or five games all season, the Thunder have been widely considered to be a lock for the third seed in the Western Conference for the last few months. Part of it is due to public opinion on both teams. Clippers stock has never been in lower demand in the CP3 era, its value depreciated by the cumulative effects of swelling leaguewide disdain and multiple disappointing playoff exits, as well as this year's early-season doldrums, high-profile losses, talks of trading Paul or Griffin, not to mention Blake's injury saga — while Oklahoma City is carried by the staggering dominance of Durant and Westbrook in the primes of their careers, perhaps both top-5 players in the NBA.
The Thunder's reputation perhaps also benefited from being the last contender to play Golden State (by process of elimination, becoming the team with supposedly the best shot of unseating the Warriors), and by escaping Oracle with only an eight-point loss and not a demoralizing or embarrassing defeat, they left the door open just wide enough for people to continue to believe in them. But OKC's gaudy win-loss record and differential has helped mask their flaws and overall weakness of their résumé, and the cracks have become increasingly more apparent since the All-Star break. Two nationally televised losses at home — a demoralizing loss to the rallying Pacers and an embarrassing defeat by the shorthanded Cavs — have lowered their profile in the public eye, and more importantly, brought them closer into the sights of the Clippers.
Since Blake Griffin's first injury on Christmas Day, the Thunder and Clippers have both mostly feasted on their opponents, to the tune of identical 20-6 records. The Clippers' initial success in the wake of losing Blake was certainly skewed by hot shooting and weak competition, but they've played a fairly grueling schedule for about a month now and held strong. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has continued to thrive against cupcakes and mediocre competition, while losing their few marquee matchups and failing to record quality wins against good teams (something that's plagued them for the entire season, as it has for the Clippers).
This was noted by our Beloved Editor-in-Chief in his Monday column on the Western playoff picture, and I spoke a little more on it in the comments section. OKC's success has come mostly against .500-or-below teams, and since beating the Clippers in L.A. by one point (with multiple incorrect calls in the final two minutes favoring the Thunder) on December 21, Oklahoma City only has six wins against teams over .500 (seven playoff teams, including the Houston Rockets). And even those wins came against teams who were slumping (Miami, Dallas, at Charlotte) and/or injured at the time (Memphis without Conley, Dallas resting all five starters). During that stretch, they also have five losses to winning teams (Chicago at home on Christmas, Portland and Golden State on the road, and now Indiana and Cleveland at home). And they've had multiple close calls against the likes of the Suns, Lakers, Knicks, Wolves and Magic, and a loss to the woeful Brooklyn Nets.
A lot of these criticisms are also true of the Clippers to varying extents, but they've played a more challenging schedule over the last month and come away with more impressive victories while shorthanded (including road wins on back-to-back nights at the end of a intense 5-games-in-7-nights East road trip, in Indiana and Atlanta, and a win over a Heat team in Miami that entered having won 6 of 7). Discounting late-December/early-January wins against the then-struggling Hornets (twice) and Blazers, the Clippers have won six games against above-.500 teams, with four losses coming against some of the best teams in the league (road losses at Cleveland, Toronto, and Boston, and a home loss to Golden State).
More importantly, of the two teams, only the Clippers are playing at a top-5 level on both sides of the floor. Since the Griffin injury, the Clippers have registered the 4th highest defensive efficiency rating in the league. With the same offensive ranking in that time span, they've had a ridiculously dominant +10.0 net rating in the 26 games without Griffin (boosted by routing the Suns by 40 last night), trailing only Golden State and San Antonio. This has come with DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers also missing multiple games (as well as Paul Pierce, but that might not be such a bad thing for LAC).
Despite having the same record and an easier schedule, OKC has only had a (still respectable) +6.1 net rating in the same time period. While their offense edges out the Clippers' for third, their defense has dropped off a cliff in the last two months. Since December 26th, they've been 19th in defensive efficiency, trailing the Sixers and Pelicans and tied with the hapless Bucks. This has progressed beyond midseason malaise or an anomalous small sample size — Oklahoma City is legitimately bad on defense and it's a glaring problem. Although they've missed perimeter defender Andre Roberson for the past ten games, they were still just 16th with him in the sixteen games between December 26th and January 24th.
This is uncharacteristic for the Thunder, a team known for their lanky and disruptive defense under Scott Brooks, finishing with top-5 marks in 2013 and 2014. Like the Clippers, they changed their defensive scheme over the offseason, but unlike the Clippers, their defense has been getting worse rather than better over the course of the season. It's possible that they'll recapture some of their trademark intensity in a playoff series (and they've shown it in brief stretches, like in the second half of their meeting with the Warriors). But right now the truth is that they've been a worse team than the Clippers for the last two months. The two teams have in fact have near-identical records and differentials since Thanksgiving (the point at which the Clippers, then 7-8, flipped the switch and turned their season around).
Suddenly Los Angeles is a very real threat to catch up to and pass Oklahoma City in the Western Conference standings. Just how likely is this possibility?
While the Clippers have an extremely challenging March schedule, it's not nearly as bad as what OKC has been facing since the All-Star Break by Lucas. As noted Monday by Lucas, the Clippers' grace period this week gives them the chance to catch up to Oklahoma City by the time they meet next Wednesday.
Right now, the Clippers are 3 losses behind the Thunder in the standings. The teams have three head-to-head match-ups remaining in the season, and all are going to be just as crucial in determining this seeding battle as the first one (a one-point victory by the Thunder on Los Angeles) was. The first of these three games is on March 2nd, and between now and then, the Clippers play four lottery teams (Phoenix, Denver, @ Sacramento, Brooklyn) with rest in between each game, and the Thunder play two tough games (@ Dallas, vs Golden State) and two easier ones (@ New Orleans, @ Sacramento). The Clippers' hardest game in the next week is the same as OKC's easiest one, and it's not unrealistic for the Clippers to hope to sweep this week while Dallas and Golden State pin two losses on the Thunder, positioning the Clippers to be just one loss back of the Thunder when they play in Los Angeles on March 2nd.
Let's make one thing clear: the Clippers likely need to win both of the next two meetings with Oklahoma City (on March 2nd and 9th, the latter on the road with OKC getting an extra day of rest) if they want a real shot at finishing with the third seed. They'll also likely need to finish with a better record outright. The final meeting between the two teams comes in OKC at the end of the Clippers' only 4-in-5 this season, almost certainly a schedule loss. Unless Los Angeles somehow manages to sweep all three remaining matchups, they'll at best be tied 2-2 in the season series.
Head-to-head advantage is the first playoff tiebreaker in the event both teams finish with identical regular-season records, but the second is whether or not a team won their division (changed only ever so slightly from last year, when Houston used it to secure the 2-seed and home-court advantage in the second round; this would remain the case even if the new rules were in effect then, since they tied the Clippers 2-2 in the season series). Thanks to a certain team up north, for the second straight year the Clippers won't be hanging up a Pacific Division Winner banner in their practice facility. Even if Golden State didn't exist, the Thunder likely win the next tiebreaker — conference record — handily anyways, since they're currently 27-5 against the West, as opposed to the Clips' 19-13.
This means, that with 26 games left for both teams, the Clippers will have to outpace the Thunder by four games. Assuming a 2-1 edge in their remaining head-to-head matchups, Los Angeles still has to make up three games elsewhere in the schedule. They have the scheduling advantage, though; as of Tuesday, Oklahoma City had the second hardest SOS in the league in remaining games, while the Clippers were 11th leaguewide (and 9th in the Western Conference).
We can break down their schedules further:
|East 3-10 seeds||3||3|
|West 5-9 seeds||7||6|
|Home v. >.450||8||7|
|Road v. >.450||8||11|
|SEGABABAs v. >.450||4||6|
|>.450 Opponent B2Bs||3||5|
The win percentage marks aren't arbitrary; a winning percentage over .450 includes the top ten seeds in the East and the top nine in the West — all those considered to be in the playoff hunt. Only six teams are above .600, the serious contenders: Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers, Raptors, Thunder, and Clippers.
The only team that's played more home games than Oklahoma City to this point is Brooklyn, and subsequently the Thunder will be spending most of their final month on the road (including 7 of their last 9, the exceptions coming against the two Los Angeles teams). OKC plays about the same number of playoff contenders as the Clippers do, but more of those games come against elite teams. They still have to play San Antonio and Los Angeles thrice, Golden State twice, and Toronto once. To make matters more difficult for the Thunder, both games in San Antonio and their return date to Oracle come on SEGABABAs (SEcond GAme of a BAck to BAck, for those not in the know).
In fact, all but one of OKC's remaining SEGABABAs are against playoff contenders, and in only two instances are their opponents also on a SEGABABA (games at Portland and Philadelphia). They do have the edge over the Clippers in that they face more opponents playing them on a SEGABABA (including home games v. the Spurs, Jazz, and Clippers, as well as a road game in Boston).
The above calendar depicts OKC's remaining schedule, with shades of green representing road games and shades of orange/brown representing home games. Darker shades indicate the difference between lottery teams, playoff hopefuls, and title contenders.
After Wednesday night's home game against the Nuggets, the Clippers only have four opponents left who come in on a SEGABABA (games in Los Angeles v. the Blazers and Lakers are also back-to-backs for the other team). They play against Atlanta and at Dallas on opponent SEGABABAs (the Hawks play the Lakers in L.A. the night before, and Dallas will be returning from a short trip to Denver). However, the Clippers have fewer SEGABABAs than the Thunder do against good teams. Their four such games: at Houston the night after playing the Spurs, a home back-to-back against Boston after facing Denver, and the aforementioned 4-in-5 in OKC (flying in from Minnesota) and mutual SEGABABA with the Blazers (retuning home from Golden State). In addition, four of their six games against elite teams come on the road (One each in Sans Francisco and Antonio, and two with OKC), with only games against the Cavs and Thunder at home.
In terms of pace, the Clips' schedule may be a little more forgiving than OKC's. The Thunder begin a run of 6 games in 9 days this Wednesday in Dallas, wrapping up with a back-to-back at Staples and Oracle next week. After that, they only play one game in the next five days, but resume a breakneck March slate afterwards. Between their two home games against the Clippers, Oklahoma City plays 13 games in 23 days, with only two games against also-rans and one game with more than one day of rest beforehand.
The Clippers' itinerary is slightly more unorthodox. They get two days of rest after their first game against OKC, but after that play 7 games in 12 days with no more than one day of rest in between any of those games. A home game against the Knicks will be the only opponent under .500 in that stretch, which ends with a back-to-back in San Antonio and Houston.
That last SEGABABA kicks off one of the most unusual scheduling patches I can remember, with the Clippers playing five sets of SEGABABAs in the last two-and-a-half weeks of March. Los Angeles gets two days off after each of the first three sets (beginning with the Spurs-Rockets pairing), and the last two are a more traditional 4-in-5, the only such one the Clippers will see this season. It remains to be seen how taxing that stretch is for the Clips. Do the multiple off days in between make up for the constant stream of back-to-backs? Their opponents certainly won't make it easy on them, as they face the Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors, Celtics, and Thunder in those ten games.
Injuries and other unforeseen concerns for either team or their opponents will obviously change their scheduling outlook, but as it stands the Clippers' final 26 look somewhat easier than the Thunder's.
If they are to catch the Thunder in the standings, they'll probably have to start by running the table in their next eight games — beating all three lottery opponents this week, winning both games with OKC, and beating Atlanta, Dallas (both coming in on back-to-backs, although that didn't stop the Clips from losing to the Wolves at home) and the Knicks. This would put them at 45-19 entering the mid-March SEGABABA slalom. Meanwhile, a generous outlook for OKC (outside of the LAC matchups) has them splitting with the Warriors and sweeping their winnable games, also putting them at 45-19 after their Minnesota game.
How both teams fare the rest of the way in March is a little murkier. It's probably safe to pencil in the Clippers losing on the road to the Spurs and Warriors, as well as their final matchup with OKC at the end of the month. Three other games in that stretch jump out as potential losses: the home game with Cleveland (they fly in Thursday to play the Lakers, and will get two days off before the Sunday matinee), and the back-to-backs in Houston and against the Celtics. That doesn't preclude them from losing in Memphis, Minnesota, or on SEGABABAs with the Blazers and Pelicans either. The Clippers probably need to win six or seven of those games to stay in the hunt for the third seed, meaning they have to finish the month no worse than 6-5 (11-5 for the whole month, leaving them 51-24 on the year). As good as Los Angeles has been the last few months, and as well as they've finished the season the last two years (winning 23 of their last 30, as well as 14 of the last 15 in 2015, as well as ending the previous season on a 20-5 run), this is still a pretty tall order.
Continuing to give OKC the benefit of the doubt, I have them splitting two March games with San Antonio. Past that, I'm projecting them losing one game between Portland, Boston, and Indiana, as well as splitting their back-to-back in Toronto and Detroit. That'd put them at 9-3 finishing March, and 54-22 on the year — possibly two games ahead of the Clippers and with the tiebreaker.
The Thunder's April schedule is easier, and it's possible to see them winning all their games in April apart from their season finale in San Antonio. This would have them finishing at 59-23, matching their record from 2014, when Durant was last fully healthy. The Clippers would be unable to match that, and there's a chance they drop a game to one of the playoff hopefuls they face, at that point desperately fighting for a 7th or 8th seed. In this scenario, they end the year 57-25, also matching their 2014 record.
In this hypothetical, OKC's projection are based on the assumption that they are indeed as good as their record and that they will pick up their defense when they face tougher competition. That may or may not be the case. I also tried to be conservative with the Clippers' chances against elite opposition apart from OKC, although for the most part I gave them the benefit of the doubt against weaker competition. It's possible (perhaps even probable) that neither team finishes as well as I projected them to.
This also shows you just how good the Clippers would have to be in order to pass Oklahoma City in the standings. Even finishing the season 20-6 (and matching their record without Blake to this point) against a very demanding schedule, they'd need OKC to lose 10 of their last 26 in order to overtake them in the standings. If the Thunder matched their suggested record here, the Clippers would need a 60-22 record (going 23-3) to pass them, which would take multiple miracles and require them sweeping every game outside of road dates at San Antonio and Golden State (both still undefeated at home) and the last matchup in OKC.
The takeaway here: the Clippers have very little room for error, and OKC has to slip up some. A 21-5 finish for Los Angeles (which is at about the upper bound of potential outcomes for them) means the Thunder can't do better than 17-9 the rest of the way (including four losses outside of the three road games in Sans Francisco and Antonio and the first two Clippers games — a prerequisite for any of this to be feasible).
The verdict: Realistically possible, at times in the next few weeks tantalizingly close, but ultimately unlikely (barring continued defensive mediocrity in Oklahoma City). But hey, playing the Warriors in the second round can't be that bad, can it?