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Clippers vs. Thunder Preview: Two Western Conference playoff hopefuls look for their first win

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The Clippers breezed through the preseason, but their first regular season contest revealed just how much LA still has to improve.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

When: 7:30 p.m. PST

How to watch: Fox Sports Prime Ticket, AM 570

Projected Starting Lineups:

LA Clippers: Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Marcin Gortat

Oklahoma City Thunder: Dennis Schroder, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Patrick Patterson, Steven Adams

Injuries:

Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute played nine minutes Wednesday, but did not appear fully back from a right calf injury that kept him out of most of the preseason. Milos Teodosic was inactive against Denver as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.

Thunder: Russell Westbrook (knee) - doubtful, Andre Roberson (patella) - out

The Big Picture:

The Clippers coasted through the preseason, but their potential flaws came to the surface in the first game of the regular season. The beautiful ball movement was nowhere to be found, particularly as they dug themselves a hole in the first half. The defense struggled to keep Denver off the offensive glass and off the free-throw line. And when the game was in the balance in the last few minutes, LA had no discernible crunch-time offense. This was one game, though, and against a team with substantial continuity from last year. The Clippers’ current opponent is still working through some things.

The Antagonist:

The Thunder enter tonight’s contest well-rested after playing Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors, a game in which they were surprisingly competitive despite playing without Russell Westbrook. Assuming Westbrook is still out, which Doc Rivers doubts, Paul George will continue to channel his Indiana days and assume a larger offensive burden. (“Pacer P”, anyone?) George is more than capable of shouldering the scoring load, and Kevin Durant had difficulty slowing him down in Oakland, so Tobias Harris will likely have his hands full with the perennial All-Star.

OKC is also a stout defensive team. Steven Adams makes it difficult to score in the paint, and even with Roberson out for the first portion of the season, George, Dennis Schroder, and Terrance Ferguson are a lengthy perimeter trio that denies passing and driving lanes. The Thunder aren’t a great outside shooting team, but they are bouncy, and have the athletes to run against the Clippers and pounce against their weaknesses in transition.

What to watch for:

The starters need to play better. The Clippers first five looked like they hadn’t any meaningful minutes together — which they hadn’t — but the lack of chemistry was jarring. Patrick Beverley needs to hit his open shots, Avery Bradley can’t force his looks, and Marcin Gortat should already be looking over his shoulder at the backup bigs coming for his spot.

After spreading out the minutes in preseason, Rivers stuck to a more conventional rotation in the opener, playing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Boban Marjanovic the bulk of the non-starter minutes. Boban will find a tougher path to minutes against OKC, which goes small in their bench units, but he has earned the right to play, particularly after being the team’s most effective offensive presence against the Nuggets.

This would be a good time for Mike Scott or Mbah a Moute to rediscover the form that led LA to seek them out in the offseason. Scott’s jumper would prove useful to stretch the Thunder defense while Mbah a Moute’s defensive versatility may be needed against George. OKC is incredibly athletic, and a surplus of bodies would benefit the Clippers.

It will be interesting to see if Rivers continues to keep the backcourt tandems of Beverley/Bradley and Williams/Gilgeous-Alexander together. The latter pairing was much more effective on offense, and Rivers complemented Shai for being the lone player who was able to go downhill and drive while looking to pass. All four will see the floor plenty, including some three-guard lineups because of LA’s dearth of veteran wings, but some mixing and matching of the defensive starters with the creative reserves would be compelling.

It’s too bad Westbrook is out, because Beverley and Russ are always appointment viewing. However, Pat doesn’t need any extra motivation to bounce back from a dreadful opening night.

Danilo Gallinari will be the more skilled power forward most nights, and this is a particularly good matchup because Patrick Patterson can’t challenge Gallinari offensively, though the Clipper forward is a better defender than his reputation would suggest. Gallo looked like the team’s best player for long stretches Wednesday, even though he also could not figure out how to score in the final minutes. His talent is undeniable. Whether he can consistently handle the scoring load is less clear.

This is LA’s second chance to prove itself against a Western Conference playoff team. We’ll see if the result improves.