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Clippers vs. Thunder Preview: The playoffs might as well begin now

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The Clippers take on a very dangerous Thunder team at home.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

Where: STAPLES Center, Los Angeles, CA

When: 7:30 PM PT

How to Watch/Listen: Prime Ticket, AM 570 Radio

Projected Starting Lineups:

Thunder: Russell Westbrook/Terrance Ferguson/Paul George/Jerami Grant/Steven Adams

Clippers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Patrick Beverley/Landry Shamet/Danilo Gallinari/Ivica Zubac

Injuries:

Thunder: Andre Roberson (knee) is out.

Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute (knee) is out. Wilson Chandler (quad) is questionable.

The Scene:

Fresh off of nailing the creaky old coffin on the Lakers’ season, the Clippers earned three days off before entering right back into the fray of the ever-so-tight Western Conference playoff race against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

The Clippers (37-29) are seeking to even the season series, and will get Oklahoma City at an opportune time. The Thunder (40-25) have lost four of their last five on the road, and come into Staples Center on the second night of a back-to-back. They edged Portland Thursday in an overtime free throw fest, but have struggled overall since a thrilling double-overtime win over the Jazz two weeks ago.

Friday’s game could have significant playoff implications, but at this point, almost every one of the next 16 games will. The Thunder are knotted with Portland, Houston, and Utah between third and sixth, while the Clippers remain just four losses behind that group.

The People:

1. Paul George. The MVP candidate and February Western Conference Player of the Month missed three games after injuring his right rotator cuff against the Nuggets. Shooting, particularly from distance, has eluded him since returning on Tuesday. He missed 10 of his 14 shots from 3-point range against the Timberwolves and then missed his first three 3-pointers against the Trail Blazers as well as a pair of free throws in the early going. Without George at 100 percent, the Thunder may not have the offensive prowess to keep up with the surging Clippers.

2. Patrick Beverley. The lack of love between Beverley and All-Star Russell Westbrook is well documented. After Westbrook went off in the first quarter Thursday in one of his seemingly endless hate-filled performance against an opposing point guard, it would hardly be surprising to see a similar rage against the Clippers’ emotional leader. Beverley will be game. Coming off a 13-point, 9-rebound, 5-steal outing against the Lakers, in which he reportedly demanded to guard LeBron James before even seeing the defensive assignments on the board, it will be entertaining to see what Beverley’s encore will be like.

3. Wilson Chandler. The versatile forward is expected to make his Clippers debut on Friday. After spending part of the season in Philadelphia, the oft-injured Chandler, was acquired in the Tobias Harris trade last month. He’s been nursing a quad injury, but, if healthy, Chandler can be another valuable asset on one of the league’s deepest teams. The timing of Chandler’s return is necessary, especially considering it will be paramount to have a month or so to see where he fits in a potential playoff rotation. Expect to see Ty Wallace’s minutes evaporate if Chandler is ready to go.

The Turning Point:

Rebounding may be the most telling factor in Friday’s matchup. The Clippers are 29-5 when they have equal or more rebounds than their opponent this season, but even with Ivica Zubac, a more capable rebounder than Marcin Gortat, starting, the Clippers are at a disadvantage against the league’s second leading rebounding team. The Thunder haul in 47.9 boards per game (second only to Milwaukee), which is 2.5 more per game than the Clippers. Oklahoma City’s large margin in rebounding may be due to getting nearly four more rebound chances per game. According to Second Spectrum, the Thunder get 86.1 rebound chances per game compared to the Clippers’ 82.3. A low field goal percentage team, which leads the league in offensive boards, combined with a defense that’s ranked in the top 5 in efficiency could account for those additional chances. However, the teams are significantly closer when looking at rebound chance percentage. Oklahoma City grabs 55.7 percent of its chances, while the Clippers grab 55.2 percent.

Take Note:

The Clippers have lost their last two to the Thunder… Westbrook has lifted his 3-point percentage nearly 4 percentage points since the All-Star Break… Since Feb. 9, the Clippers are fourth in in the NBA in defensive efficiency…