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Game Preview: Can the Clippers Stop Westbrook and the Thunder?

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The Thunder have shaken out of their early season funk, and look like one of the better teams in the NBA. But the Clippers are improved as well, and riding a four game win streak. Can they triumph at home over a hopefully tired Thunder team?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

When: 7:30 PM PT

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California

How to Watch: TNT, AM 570 Radio

Projected Starting Lineups:

Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams

Clippers: Milos Teodosic, CJ Williams, Wes Johnson, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan

Injuries:

Thunder: Andre Roberson Out (Left Knee Tendinitis), Alex Abrines Doubtful (Strained Right Groin)

Clippers: Austin Rivers Questionable (Left Achilles), Pat Beverley Out (Right Knee Surgery), Danilo Gallinari Out (Glute)

The Big Picture:

The Clippers have won four in a row, and six of seven heading into this game against the Thunder. They have secured the 9th seed in the West, and are making a push for the 8th seed and beyond. Only a loss behind the tied-for-7th Pelicans and Blazers, the Clippers have a lot of time to make up the difference, and are still nowhere close to healthy. Austin Rivers is questionable with an Achilles injury (I’d bet he doesn’t play), and starting small forward Danilo Gallinari will be out another couple weeks at least. When those guys are back, the Clippers lineup should be truly potent offensively, and should be stronger defensively as well. The only other cloud looming on the horizon is what to do with two-way player CJ Williams, who is nearing the end of his 45 day limit, and who has become a valuable member of the Clippers’ rotation. When Gallinari returns Williams’ status will be somewhat less important, but he (and fellow two-way player Jamil Wilson) have proven they belong on the Clippers’ NBA roster. Hopefully the Clippers’ get those situations sorted out sometime soon.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder struggled mightily to start the season, but turned things around in the month of December, and have won 7 of their last 10 contests. They absolutely drubbed the Lakers last night (to be fair, the Lakers are completely pathetic right now, especially defensively), and are a scary team on the offensive end of the floor. Russell Westbrook has looked like himself again after a slow start, and is doing two things on offense that are really helping the Thunder: lowering his turnovers, and taking less threes. Paul George has settled in as his sidekick by taking more threes than ever before, and hitting them at the highest rate of his career. He’s also leading the NBA in steals, and his pesky defense alongside Andre Roberson and Steven Adams make the Thunder a tough defensive unit as well. Carmelo Anthony finally looks like he is making peace with being the 3rd option, relying mostly on catch and shoot jumpers and bullyball on smaller opponents in the post. The rest of the roster is still rather shaky, but young players have stepped up, and Adams is one of the more underrated centers in the league. The Thunder are only 5th in the West right now, but they have more talent than the Wolves, and are dealing with fewer injuries than the Rockets and Spurs. They are going to be a tough matchup for anyone in the playoffs.

Notes:

· Return of Raymond Felton: Ray spent only one season with the Clippers, but quickly won over fans with his hustle, effort, and dependable play. He was one of the best backup point guards in the NBA last season, and has remained such for the Thunder this year. He’s not flashy, but he doesn’t turn the ball over, hits open shots, and can run an offense. Ray has received fewer minutes this season due to the cyborg nature of Westbrook, yet he’s still been a crucial player for the Thunder. He probably won’t get a standing ovation on his introduction, but a nice round of applause is definitely warranted.

· Fiery Ferguson: The Clippers aren’t the only team starting rookies. The Thunder turned to Ferguson against the Lakers, and he absolutely destroyed them, scoring 24 points in 33 minutes (he’d played 155 all season to that point), and hitting 6-9 three-pointers. His defense is a bit questionable, but he’s long and athletic, and his shot release is really quick. The Clippers obviously will take Ferguson beating them over the other four Thunder stars, true. He’s still dangerous, though, and they need to be careful not to help off him too much.

· Defensive Matchups: The Clippers will have their hands full defending the Thunder tonight. My guess is that CJ Williams gets assigned to Russ to start the game, with Milos “hidden” on Ferguson. Wes Johnson will draw the start to guard George, leaving Blake on Carmelo. I suspect Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans also get shots at Russ, while Sam Dekker might take a turn on George or Melo as well. The Clippers will need to throw lots of defenders at all three Thunder stars, as each of them is skilled at getting opponents into foul trouble. The Clippers, on the other hand, need to do their best to defend without fouling. They are short-handed enough as is without worrying about fouls as well.

· Can Lou Stay Hot: The Thunder have some adept defensive players, and Paul George will probably take a crack at stopping Lou at some point before the night is done. In a game that might be quite high scoring, the Clippers will need every bit of offense they can get, and that means yet another magical Lou game. Russ is notoriously shaky on defense, and Ferguson is out of his depth, so maybe Lou has another 30+ point night on good efficiency coming.

Check out Welcome to Loud City for the perspective of Thunder fans. Go Clippers!