The Big Picture
Be it the quality of opponents, injuries, or natural regression to blame, the luster of the Clippers’ first several games of the season has worn off quickly. The hot start, bolstered by drubbings of the Suns and Lakers, took the league by notice, but may have raised expectations beyond a reasonable point. A three-game losing streak has tethered those expectations and brought them back down to earth, but it’s important to keep in mind what we all knew before the Clippers jumped out to a 5-2 record: this squad is going to need time to mesh. Only returning four rotation players, it always was going to take some patience while the team adjusted to life in the post-Chris Paul era. They sit in 8th place in a highly competitive Western Conference, and their only truly inexcusable loss was off of a back to back in a dreaded day game against the Heat.
Now, let’s talk about those injuries. The biggest blow to the Clippers in this game will be the unexpected absence of heralded pest Patrick Beverly. He was clearly at less than 100% in Tuesday’s game against the Spurs, but Beverly gives the Clippers a defensive identity and unrelenting energy that will be missed immensely with the reigning MVP, a wrecking ball of athleticism, lining up at point guard for the Thunder.
In a surprise turn of events, Wesley Johnson again looks like a real NBA player and has filled in admirably for Danilo Gallinari. The Clippers have missed Gallo’s ability to create offense off the dribble, particularly with Milos Teodosic still sidelined, but Wes earned the respect of the Spurs defense (and this Clips Nation writer) with a 12 point, 6 rebound, 2 assist performance. He’ll need to continue to look for opportunities to make aggressive cuts and to capitalize on open looks if the Clippers offense is going to be able to keep pace with the Thunder. Oh, and he’ll have to worry about slowing down that guy Paul George too.
Coming off of a prime time loss to the Nuggets last night, the Thunder have dropped four in a row and are searching for answers as they work to integrate Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Their play may not be as bad as their record indicates after losing two down-to-the-wire games to the Timberwolves that could have easily gone either way, but a 4-7 start is surprising for a team loaded with so much talent.
The common refrain entering the season was whether or not the three Thunder stars would be willing to adjust their roles and playing styles to play together effectively. As far as the numbers are concerned, the timeshare should be going swimmingly, but a remarkably even split hasn’t translated to victories for Oklahoma City. Westbrook, George, and Anthony are averaging 19.4, 19.5, and 20.8 points on 17.8, 17.2, and 17.4 field goal attempts per game, respectively. That’s downright egalitarian, but the trio has clearly had trouble fitting within a cohesive system, instead settling for a my-turn, your-turn approach that has left them ranked 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency.
In addition, of course, the downside of being so top-heavy is the sacrifice of depth, and the Thunder’s second unit has struggled mightily, ranking next-to-last with only 24.9 points per game. No matter how well the Thunder’s big three play on a nightly basis, they’re going to need more from the supporting cast if they hope to ascend into the Western Conference elite.
While we’ve been unfortunately robbed of a fascinating matchup between well-established rivals Westbrook and Beverley, the game will still provide some interesting pairings, particularly in the frontcourt. Blake Griffin will have his hands full trying to slow the quick trigger of Anthony, but should be able to take advantage of Melo in the post on the offensive end. At the center spot, DeAndre Jordan will do battle with the Thunder’s Steven Adams, who held him to a modest 12.0 points and 11.25 rebounds per game in four meetings last season. DJ will be relieved to not have to wander too far outside the paint on the defensive end, as his impact is always more prominent when he doesn’t have to worry about an opposing big man with a jump shot.
Outside of the twosome in the middle, there will be a lot of new looks on both sides of the ball as both teams continue to work through early season kinks and find their footing with drastically new lineups and identities.
The game pits the NBA’s fourth ranked offense (the Clippers) against its second ranked defense (the Thunder), in what should be a back and forth contest. A Clippers win against a talented Thunder group would be a quality win, particularly given the injury situation, while for the Thunder, a loss could ratchet up the scrutiny on a team that had aspirations of challenging the Warriors after a momentous offseason.
- My prediction is that Doc Rivers elects to start Sindarius Thornwell at the two and slide Austin Rivers to the one. He’s questionable after suffering a minor ankle sprain in practice yesterday, but Austin was phenomenal against the Spurs and he certainly won’t back down from the challenge of containing Westbrook. Rather than bump Lou Williams up from the bench and leave the second unit devoid of playmaking, Doc should give the rook his first NBA start and see what type of minutes he can give the starters.
- The Clippers called up 27-year-old forward C.J. Williams from the Agua Caliente Clippers for some much needed depth. He may not see the court, but he did well enough in the preseason to earn himself a two-way contract and it would be fun to see him get a crack at some NBA minutes in his debut.
- This is the Clippers second game of a three-game road trip (Pelicans on Saturday), and they would love to get at least one win despite the injury woes. They’re catching Oklahoma City at the right time, it’ll just be a matter of whether they’ll be able to recapture the early season defensive magic and get enough stops to take advantage of the sputtering Thunder.