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Thunder vs. Clippers: Pregame Primer

Thunder vs. Clippers: Pregame Primer



Thunder (42-18, 17-10 road) vs. Clippers (39-20, 20-10 home)

TV: ESPN/FSOklahoma
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 9:30 PM CST

Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)

  • Offensive Rating: Thunder – 110.1 (2nd), Clippers – 106.4 (6th)
    Defensive Rating: Thunder – 102.8 (14th), Clippers – 100.5 (7th)

The consensus is that it is better to be playing your best basketball heading into to the playoffs than to have peaked in January or February. If that is the case, then hopefully the best brand of basketball on the defensive end of the court is coming up for the Thunder in March and April. Because in February, the defense steadily got worse by the game. After the All-Star break, the Thunder were ranked 10th in the league in Defensive Rating. A week and a half later, the Thunder have dropped down to 14th in the league.

When you look at the numbers, the easy thing to say is, “This has nothing to do with the offense, because the offense is doing great.” But I disagree. I think a lot of the Thunder’s issues are because of how they run their offense. Don’t get me wrong, by every metric, the Thunder offense is one of the best in the league. But its the pace at which they run their offense that bothers me.


To me, the Thunder offense is akin to one of those run and gun offenses in football. One of those Big XII offenses that likes to score as quickly as possible because they have the personnel to do so (quick wide receivers, shifty running backs that can catch passes out the backfield, a great tight end). But sometimes, those teams get involved in high scoring affairs with other high scoring teams and the only side of the ball that suffers is the defensive side. In football, there is supposed to be a balance on the offensive side of the ball to allow the defensive players to rest a little. A mix of run and pass allows the clock to run more so the defense can catch their wind. Another effect of a balanced offense in football is the fact that the other team’s offense stays off the field.

Well, its the same concept with the Thunder. They don’t use the shot clock enough, especially late in games when they are up. Instead, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook like to go for the home run plays most of the time, like a 3-point attempt with 16 seconds left in the shot clock for a dagger or an aggressive drive from Westbrook where he either tries to lay it up or finds someone who is open enough to where they have to take the shot. This is the way the Thunder run their offense, not just in the first quarter, but also in a close game in the fourth quarter. The only problem with those is that missed shots sometimes lead to run out opportunities for the opponent where you can’t set up your defense (see the last 5 minutes of the Portland/Lillard explosion game for an example). And the problem with Westbrook drives is they sometimes lead to live-ball turnovers or plays where the defense is outnumbered because Westbrook is still getting up after falling down on the offensive end. If the Thunder slowed the pace a bit and used a bit more clock, they would likely be that much more effective on the defensive end, while not affecting their offensive output.

Series History

This is the second of four meetings between the Thunder and Clippers. They will get to know each other very well this month as they play each other three times in the next 30 days. In the first meeting, the Thunder held on to win 100-99 in a fourth quarter that featured three ties and four lead changes in the final three minutes of the game. Durant hit the game winning shot with 5 seconds left and then blocked Chris Paul’s last second attempt on the other end as the final buzzer sounded.

The Opponent

The Clippers come into this game with a 39-20 record, having won 7 of their last 10 games. They currently sit in 4th place in the West, 2.5 games behind the Thunder for the “we want to delay the inevitable for another round, while also facing the Spurs” position in the standings. The Clippers are one of the more balanced teams in the league, posting top 10 averages in offensive and defensive rating and in points scored/points allowed.

They’ve done a good enough job in Blake Griffin’s absence, that many thought there was a possibility he may be moved at the trade deadline. The Clippers’ offense completely changes when Griffin is out. It becomes more fluid and a lot faster paced, which is better suited for today’s game. The catalyst for the team is point guard Chris Paul, who is having one of his best seasons as a floor general, averaging nearly 20 points and 9.6 assists per game. The biggest beneficiary in Griffin’s absence has been JJ Redick, who is averaging 16.6 points per game on 48.2% shooting from deep. That’s right; nearly 50% shooting from deep on 5.5 attempts. In the wake of Stephen Curry’s historic season, Redick’s production has barely registered a blip on the national scene.

Up front, DeAndre Jordan is having the best season of his career, averaging 12 points, 14 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Green are all beneficiaries of the dribble drive game of Paul as floor spacers. Paul Pierce and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will be tasked with guarding Kevin Durant tonight. Mbah a Moute is questionable with an eye injury.

3 Big Things

1. Perimeter Defense

The Clippers are top 5 in 3-point FGs made and 3-point FG percentage. The dribble-drive game of Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford cause defenses to collapse leaving their shooters open on the perimeter. And if the defense doesn’t collapse, then that opens up the pick and roll combination between Paul and DeAndre Jordan.

2. Small Ball

In Griffin’s absence, the Clippers have gone small from the beginning of the game, usually starting a combination of two small forwards (Jeff Green, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, or Paul Pierce). With this type of line-up, Serge Ibaka may have trouble finding his way around the defensive end of the floor. DeAndre Jordan is too big for the Thunder to match Ibaka against him. But Ibaka is too slow afoot to be matched up against any of the Clippers’ small forwards not named Mbah a Moute. If Mbah a Moute is out or plays little, the Thunder may struggle with keeping Ibaka in the game.

3. Playoff Positioning

The playoff push starts now. March is when things start to crystallize in the NBA. Teams start making that push for wherever they aspire to be in terms of seeding. The Thunder and Clippers both know they likely aren’t catching the No. 2 team in the West, let alone the Warriors. Instead, they will be battling to avoid the Warriors until the Conference Finals, if they can make it that far. These two teams play 3 times this month and are separated by 2.5 games.

Thunder Killer

Chris Paul – Paul has a thing about having great shooting games against the Thunder. In the last game they played, he was 11-19 from the field (4-6 from 3) for 32 points. Then there was Game 1 from their playoff series two years ago where he shot 12-14 from the field (8-9 from deep) for 32 points. If Westbrook continuously goes under screens against Paul, look for CP3 to put up some more 3-pointers in this game.

Thoughts from the Sideline

A condor is your mascot? Really? An animal whose diet consists of rotting flesh…this is the mascot you want children to associate your franchise with? Great job, Ballmer. Should’ve just gone with Clippie the Paperclip.

Rest in Peace, Aubrey McClendon. Second Thunder-related death in less than a month. So sad.