The Big Picture
The L.A. Clippers have won every game thus far in 2017 and hope to keep it that way. The Clippers want to do so by playing the right way, and so far they have. For the season thus far, per NBA.com, only the Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, and Golden State Warriors rank top-ten in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating.
To narrow the scope even further, only the Clippers and Spurs rank top-ten in Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating for 2017; and the Clippers lead the league in Defensive Rating in the new year, at 97.3.
Their core for the last several years of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Jamal Crawford was already great, and even with Griffin out, the team has continued to find new ways to win. Luc Mbah a Moute, perhaps their best one-on-one defender, is now contributing even more and becoming more assertive on the offensive end. Major improvements by Austin Rivers, combined with the depth and many offensive options they now have with Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, and Alan Anderson in tow, as well as Wesley Johnson at the defensive end, will make them tougher to beat as the season rolls along. For a team with much loftier goals, though, and particularly with the postseason in-mind, health is of the utmost importance right now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder go as Russell Westbrook goes. Arguably the leading candidate for NBA MVP thus far, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double (30.8 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.5 apg) and carrying a team on his back that lost Kevin Durant and traded away Serge Ibaka during the 2016 offseason.
The Thunder still play in the loaded Western Conference, and despite their lack of perimeter shooting (24th in 3-point shots made, 16th in 3-point shots attempted, and 29th in 3-point percentage) and depth in talent, they rank 6th in the Conference and are in the top-half of the league in Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating. But consistency has been an issue for them, and they are only 9-11 against winning teams so far. The Thunder will need even greater contributions from their second and third offensive options in Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo, respectively. They could also desperately use, at the very least, decent shooting nights from Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, and Jerami Grant, against a Clippers team that will likely force them to rely on their perimeter game.
Steven Adams Expected Out
After going down and hitting his head less than two minutes into the 3rd quarter against the Sacramento Kings, Steven Adams was ruled out for the rest of the game to be examined for a concussion, whilst preventing any further complications. As of posting this preview, it has not yet been formally announced by the team, nor apparently determined, whether or not he actually suffered a concussion during the game. Adams, an adept rebounder and defensive anchor for the Thunder, could miss one to several games. And if he is indeed out against the Clippers, this presents a problem for the Thunder and an advantage for the Clippers in the paint; DeAndre Jordan, who just posted a 20-20 game (24 points, 21 rebounds) against the Lakers, has been looking to get a bit more involved in the Clippers’ offense. And the tutelage of recently-appointed team consultant Kevin Garnett has appeared to rub-off on Jordan rather quickly, so with Adams potentially out, it could be another big night for Jordan.
Battle of the Boards
The Thunder rank 3rd in the NBA in total rebounds per game (45.7) and 7th in offensive rebounds per game (11.3). By contrast, the Clippers rank 14th in total rebounds per game (43.9) and 24th in offensive rebounds per game (9.3). But the Clippers (34.6) and Thunder (34.5) rank 6th and 7th, respectively, in defensive rebounds per game, and will likely both be focusing on transition defense and preventing opposing pace in this particular matchup.
It should also be noted that since 2017 began, the Clippers rank 1st in the league in defensive rebounding (38.3 rpg) and 3rd in total rebounding (47.2). Ranking just ahead of them in total rebounding in the new year? You guessed it, the Thunder, with 47.5 per game. Rebounding will be a major factor in this game, especially with Adams out, so the Clippers need to continue to focus on grabbing defensive boards and preventing second-chance opportunities for the Thunder.
We are now at the halfway mark for the 2016-17 NBA season, and Russell Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double. To top it all off, he just posted his 20th triple-double of the season against the Sacramento Kings last night. Despite his shooting percentages and overall shot-selection, there’s not a whole lot else to criticize about Westbrook. He’s the team’s leader statistically and emotionally, and most importantly, actually makes everyone around him better. He is also an absolute terror for opposing defenses, especially in transition. In all likelihood, Westbrook will post some big scoring and rebounding numbers yet again, but preventing him from facilitating and getting others involved, in terms of scoring, will be key for the Clippers.
Keeping the Streak Alive
Clippers players and staff will all say that playing the right way and overall health both transcend wins, losses, and streaks; the fact that 17 games separate the 1 and 8 seed in the Western Conference only supports this notion. That said, the Clippers would like to possess, at the very least, home court advantage in the playoffs. The Clippers (28-14), Jazz (26-16), Thunder (25-17), and Memphis Grizzlies (25-18) are all within no more than 2 games of one another, with a potential Clippers loss and Thunder win bringing that number down to 1. With Griffin still out and the rest of the West not letting-up anytime soon, the Clippers can’t let this one get away the way they did against this same Thunder squad earlier this season (an 83-85 loss at home). Stretching the lead to 7 would be a minor victory, but single wins and losses now may matter a whole lot more by season’s end.
Check out the Thunder’s SB Nation site, Welcome to Loud City, for the Oklahoma City perspective.