NBA playoffs preview: Thunder-Clippers rich with intrigue
Matchup: No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (57-25)
Season series: Split 2-2
Efficiency rankings: Oklahoma City (7th offense, 5th defense), Los Angeles (1st offense, 8th defense)
Last round: Thunder beat Grizzlies, 4-3; Clippers best Warriors, 4-3.
For a change, the Thunder won't be the more heavily psychoanalyzed team in a series. Oklahoma City is used to the speculation about the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook dynamic. Does Westbrook want to be the alpha dog? Does Durant quietly seethe when Westbrook seems to forget that KD is supposed to be the first option on offense? But that's minor-league stuff compared to the scrutiny that the Clippers will get for as long as their postseason lasts. Expect daily reports on their psyche, thanks to the continued fallout from the Donald Sterling racism scandal. Will the media attention distract them? Galvanize them? The worst of it might be over for Doc Rivers and his players, for whom the Game 7 win over Golden State seemed to be cathartic. But whether that breakthrough is permanent is anyone's guess. It's not a stretch to suggest that the series might be affected by whether any major Sterling-related news breaks in the next two weeks.
The Case For The Thunder
When Durant and Westbrook play the way they did in Game 7 against the Grizzlies, the Thunder are nearly unbeatable. Durant was deadly and efficient, with 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting, and Westbrook was an athletic, all-around demon, with a triple-double (27 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds) and a block of a Tony Allen layup that had to be seen to be believed. It took most of the series for the pair to finally hit their stride, but now that they have, it could be bad news for the Clippers. Oklahoma City is also the healthier team, particularly at the point, where Westbrook's size, speed and strength could be a problem for the banged-up Chris Paul. With Westbrook and Durant, Oklahoma City is one of the few teams that can expect to match the firepower of the Clippers' combo of Blake Griffin and Paul.
The Case For The Clippers
The Sterling affair has forged a more unified, focused Clipper team that is inspired to play at its highest level. OK, we actually don't know yet if that's true, but with the expert handling of the situation by coach Doc Rivers so far, it just might be. After a sub-par six games against the Warriors due to injuries, Paul's hamstring finally allowed him to look like something close to his old self in Game 7. If he gets his explosiveness back, he not only makes the Clippers' pick-and-roll game much more effective, he can get their transition gamae going again. That would turn this into into an entertaining, high-octane series, because the Clippers are fully capable of running with the Thunder. Oklahoma City would have its hands full with Lob City. In close games, the Clippers should have an advantage. Oklahoma City's execution down the stretch has been spotty at best in the postseason, and in Rivers, the Clips have one of the best late-game strategists in the league.
Serge Ibaka. He's a highly regarded defender, but that reputation has been built mainly on his ability to come from the weak side to block shots. His straight-up, man-to-man defense has been more suspect, but it will be on full display against Griffin. A big part of the reason the undermanned Warriors lasted seven games against the Clippers was that for much of the series, Warrior forward Draymond Green's defense made Griffin inefficient on the low block. The Thunder are counting on Ibaka, taller and more athletic than Green, to do the same. If he does, the Clippers will have a hard time generating enough offense to win.
Thunder in six. Memphis pushed OKC to seven games largely because of its grinding, halfcourt game and size inside. There will be no such problems against the Clippers, who like to run. The tempo will be more to the Thunder's liking, and the Clippers don't defend as well as Memphis, all of which should make this a slightly easier series for the Thunder.