Here we go. Round two. While this is certainly the matchup that most anticipated in the second round of the Western Conference, the way that both teams got here was far from most expectations. The Oklahoma City Thunder were pushed to the brink by an extremely tough Memphis Grizzlies team, forced to win two straight elimination games to move on. The Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, became embroiled in the Donald Sterling racism case, but were still able to focus on basketball and down the Golden State Warriors in seven games.
So here we find ourselves with two Western Conference powerhouses ready to do battle. If the season series is any implication, this should be another fantastic series. The teams split their four meeting, with the Thunder only outscoring the Clippers by four points in total. Looking forward to Saturday’s Game 1, let’s take a look at the matchups that we will see.
Russell Westbrook (OKC, Player Efficiency Rating in Playoffs: 21.4) vs. Chris Paul (LAC, PER: 20.2)
Westbrook found a rhythm during the end of the Memphis series, notching two triple-doubles, including an impressive 16 assists in Game 7. If he can be that kind of facilitator for the entire series against the Clippers, he and Paul should be about even in terms of play. Paul himself is a nightly threat for 10+ assists. Both players have been injured for long stretches this season, but have bounced back in great form. Westbrook is more athletic and a better scorer, but Paul can score effectively, is an elite distributer and is not as inconsistent as Westbrook. However, Westbrook seems to be in the zone, and with no extra rest he should be able to pick up right where he left off. Paul had a nice opening series, but it was Westbrook with the more impressive stats and the triple-doubles to show for it.
Caron Butler (OKC, PER: 9.0) vs. J.J. Redick (LAC, PER: 14.8)
After Game 5 against Memphis, Scott Brooks did something that he hadn’t done since 2009: change his starting lineup for reasons other than injury. Replacing the innefective Thabo Sefolosha with the veteran Butler, a former Clipper, proved a great move, as he averaged 10.5 points and proved a huge threat from deep. Redick has been a deep threat his entire career, making a name for himself based on his ability to shoot the three. It is unsure if Brooks will make the change back to Sefolosha, who did not play at all in Games 6 or 7, or stick with Butler, but neither of them are a better than Redick. Put simply, while Butler and Sefolosha both have their skills, Redick would start at the 2 guard over both of them if he was on the Thunder.
Kevin Durant (OKC, PER: 20.0) vs. Matt Barnes (LAC, PER: 11.0)
No debate here. Durant was Mr. Reliable for the Thunder when they needed him most, scoring at will in Games 6 and 7. While Barnes is a serviceable veteran who has played well for the Clippers, this is the MVP we’re talking about.
Serge Ibaka (OKC, PER: 18.9) vs. Blake Griffin (LAC, PER: 22.0)
Ibaka is a fantastic defender and about as excellent of a third scoring option in the NBA, but Blake Griffin is playing on another level this season. He was the undeniable MVP for the Clippers this season, leading them during Chris Paul’s injury stint. If there was a second MVP award that LeBron James and Kevin Durant were not eligible for, I would put my money on Griffin winning it. He is a pure athletic force. To be fair, Ibaka is a much better defender than David Lee, who was tasked with stopping Griffin in the first round. The two also have a history together, having gotten in a few skirmishes during games. While the individual matchup will be fantastic, this Clippers are becoming Griffin’s team, and he is stepping up his play to prove it.
Kendrick Perkins (OKC, PER: 8.4) vs. DeAndre Jordan (LAC, PER: 20.2)
I have been one of Kendrick Perkins’ harshest critics, but he actually played a very effective series against the Grizzlies. He made 12 of his 17 shots, including the buzzer-beating putback that sent Game 2 into overtime. He also combined with Serge Ibaka to make things tough for Zach Randolph all series. That being said, he can still be a liability. DeAndre Jordan, in the meantime, is not. Jordan was the Clippers X factor in the first round. Always a double-double threat, Jordan has the ability to score 20 points and pull down 20 rebounds on any given night. If he brings the toughness and physicality on the boards that he had in the first round, Perkins is in for a rough series.
Thunder – Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Thabo Sefolosha, Perry Jones, Andre Roberson, Hasheem Thabeet
Clippers – Jamaal Crawford, Darren Collison, Glen Davis, Danny Granger, Hedo Turkoglu, Willie Green, Jared Dudley, Ryan Hollins, Reggie Bullock
Wow. What a mismatch. Of the nine players listed for the Thunder above, only five of them (Jackson, Nick Collison, Fisher, Adams and Sefolosha) saw playing time during meaningful minutes. Sefolosha lost his starting job and, evidently, any role in the rotation, sitting on the bench for all of Games 6 and 7. Nick Collison also seems to have lost his playing time to Steven Adams, sitting all of Game 7 himself. Jackson has been great, and Fisher has been effective, but look at this Clippers bench. They all know their roles and are extremely effective at them. Led by Sixth Man of the Year Crawford, the Clippers bench is the deepest in the league.
Scott Brooks (OKC) vs. Doc Rivers (LAC)
Brooks has been great in Oklahoma City, but he does have his flaws. As previously stated, the Butler start was his first lineup change since he put Russell Westbrook into the starting lineup in 2009. He has his team and front office’s support, but he is no Doc Rivers, who is the staple for coaching success in today’s NBA. He already has a championship on his resume and is one of the best in the league. I mean, the Clippers traded for him.
Overall: Honestly, I am more scared of the Clippers than I am of either the Spurs or the Trail Blazers. The Thunder need to make sure that the Clippers role players don’t get hot scoring like they let Mike Miller, Tony Allen and Courtney Lee do against Memphis. If they can force the Clippers to run through Paul and Griffin, along with contributions from Jordan and Crawford, they should be in good shape. But ultimately, this series will come down to turnovers. Both teams thrive in transition. The Thunder committed a lot of uncharacteristic turnovers against Memphis, and the Clippers will be quick to pounce on those opportunities should they arrive. Likewise, the Thunder are very adept at turning lose balls into fast break points. The matchups may not all go their way, but if the Thunder can limit their turnovers and force some on defense, along with limit the amount of consistent scorers for the Clippers, they should advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Prediction: Thunder in 7 (Game 1 – Thunder, Game 2 – Clippers, Game 3 – Clippers, Game 4 – Thunder, Game 5 – Thunder, Game 6 – Clippers, Game 7 – Thunder)
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