Monday, May 5, 2014

West Round 2 Preview: (2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers

There are four All-Stars in the series, but Scott Brooks might be the pivotal character.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By The Numbers

Oklahoma City:
59-23 (34-7 Home; 25-16 Road)
PPG: 106.2 (5th); PPG Allowed: 99.8 (12th)
+6.3 Average Scoring Margin (3rd)
Off Rating: 108.1 (7th); Def Rating: 101.0 (5th)
+7.1 Net Efficiency Rating (3rd)

Los Angeles:
57-25 (34-7 Home; 23-18 Road)
PPG: 107.9 (1st); 101.0 (14th)
+7.0 Average Scoring Margin (2nd)
Off Rating: 109.4 (1st); Def Rating: 102.1 (7th)
+7.3 Net Efficiency Rating (2nd)

Season Series: Tied 2-2
Los Angeles 111, Oklahoma City 103 (November 13)
Oklahoma City 105, Los Angeles 91 (November 21)
Los Angeles 125, Oklahoma City 117 (February 23)
Oklahoma City 107, Los Angeles 101 (April 9)

Players To Watch

Kevin Durant

Does this seem reductive to you? It probably should. Yes, I'm telling you that Oklahoma City's best player and the soon-to-be-announced Most Valuable Player of the league is going to be a key guy in this series.

Here's why - The Clippers do not have a soul on their roster that can guard him. Matt Barnes and Danny Granger are going to be the two that spend the most time on him, but neither have the athletic ability any longer to stick with him for 48 minutes (or even 24 minutes each). J.J. Redick is a good team defender, but doesn't have the size or the skill to deal with Durant one-on-one. Jamal Crawford would get torched. Jared Dudley has fallen out of the rotation and probably wouldn't even be a good matchup anyway. If worst comes to worst, we might even see Blake Griffin or (gulp) Hedo Turkoglu try to check Durant. There's a real possibility that Durant averages 40 per game in this series, even more so if Oklahoma City spends time playing small and Serge Ibaka is pulling DeAndre Jordan away from the basket.

The Clippers' only real hope of containing Durant is to double-team and trap him every time he comes off a screen and hope that you can win the 4-on-3 behind the play by swarming the rest of the defense towards Westbrook and praying to God that nobody on the team can knock down a three.

Blake Griffin

Again, if this seems reductive, it's because it is.

Like Los Angeles with Durant, Oklahoma City doesn't have a great defensive matchup for Griffin. He's stronger than Serge Ibaka and could cause a lot of problems on the offensive boards, he's quicker than Kendrick Perkins and could cause a lot of problems facing up from the wing, and he's too crafty for the rookie Steven Adams. When Oklahoma City goes small with Durant at power forward, Griffin should be able to bully his way to the basket whenever he wants.

The Thunder's best bet is Nick Collison, who fell out of favor towards the end of the Memphis series - he played just seven minutes in Game 6 and did not appear in Game 7. Griffin struggled at times in Round 1 against Draymond Green, a similar defender with quick hands and feet but also some size to prevent being pushed around too much.

The one concern for Griffin is foul trouble. He fouled out in Game 1 and Game 6 (both close losses) and had five each in Games 5 and 7. When he committed four or more fouls in Round 1, he averaged 19.2 points and shot 45.7 percent from the floor. When he had fewer than four fouls, he averaged 33.5 points and shot 66.7 percent from the floor. A bit of a disparity. Small sample size, yes, but it suggests that when he's able to be more aggressive going to the basket and fighting for rebounds, he's a different (read: more effective) offensive player.

The Case For Oklahoma City

They have the highest ceiling of any team in the Western Conference, and maybe the highest ceiling of any team in the league. Scott Brooks still totally hasn't cut loose the riff-raff at the bottom of his rotation, but when (if) he does, this team will be deadly. The Clippers play a small backcourt fairly often - Chris Paul and Darren Collison shared the court for 638 minutes during the regular season. If Brooks responds with a backcourt of Westbrook and Reggie Jackson (as opposed to Westbrook and Derek Fisher), Oklahoma City will have a scoring punch that the Clippers will have trouble containing.

Kendrick Perkins might actually have value in this series, if only to keep DeAndre Jordan off the offensive glass and to dole out a few hard fouls to Griffin and Jordan to deter them from their inevitable aerial assault on the rim. But any time that one of Griffin or Jordan is off the floor (namely, any time the Clippers turn to Glen Davis), Oklahoma City needs to go small (with Durant at the 4), or play Ibaka and Collison up front (their best offensive big man combo).

Best-Case Scenario: The Clippers have nobody to guard Durant and he explodes like he did in Games 6 and 7 against Memphis, only for the entire series. Russell Westbrook is too physical for Chris Paul and bullies his way to the rim repeatedly. Perkins is able to deter Jordan and Griffin away from the basket when he's on the court; when he's not, Oklahoma City's best lineups blitz an over-matched Clippers defense. Los Angeles is able to steal a game but the Thunder win the series in a gentleman's sweep.

The Case For Los Angeles

Plain and simple, Doc Rivers has to coach circles around Scott Brooks. Given the coaching aptitude of the two men, that's not entirely unreasonable.

Brooks has to stick to his moderately to incredibly poor lineups (three of OKC's top five most-used lineups this season had negative +/-, including a mind-blowing -16.2 points per 100 possessions for the Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Ibaka/Adams unit - they played 105 minutes together this season), and Rivers has to take advantage of them. When Perkins is in the game, the Clippers need to attack him in the pick-and-roll, and they'll  need to take advantage of Griffin's passing from the high- and mid-post, especially the quick tick-tack-toe passes from Paul to Griffin to Jordan for lob dunks. Oklahoma City has a speed advantage at pretty much every position except center, so Jordan needs to have another monster series. He grossly out-played Jermaine O'Neal in Round 1, he'll need to do the same to Perkins in Round 2.

The two key perimeter players for the Clippers, at least offensively, are Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford. Oklahoma City is a much better defensive team than anyone seems to give them credit for (they were 5th in defensive rating this season), so if they're able to bottle up Chris Paul, Collison and/or Crawford need to be ready and able to make plays off the dribble. J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes also need to knock down their spot-up jump shots to ensure that Paul, Griffin, and Jordan have enough room to operate in the middle of the floor.

Best-Case Scenario: Redick, Barnes, and Crawford are on the mark from three. Griffin's passing from the high post slices and dices Oklahoma City's unprepared defense. Brooks remains insistent on playing a sub-optimal rotation, and the Clippers steal a game or two. Barnes and Granger contain Durant to the point that he's just another guy averaging 30 points on 46 percent shooting, as opposed to 38 points on 54 percent shooting. Westbrook is a volume shooter and not a volume scorer, but Jackson and Ibaka can't pick up the slack. Jamal Crawford is the best bench player on either team and carries the Clippers offense when Paul isn't on the floor. They're all close games but the Clippers surprise in five games.

The Pick

Clippers in 7.

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