Playoff roundtable: Which X-Factor is most likely to decide Thunder-Clippers?
SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest playoff question of the day. Today, we examine …
Who will be the X-Factor in the rest of the Thunder-Clippers series?
Lee Jenkins: Serge Ibaka, Thunder. Oklahoma City may be able to win this series on the offensive strength of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But the Clippers, like every team, have to load up on those two and leave other shooters. Serge Ibaka, billed as the Thunder's third star, made the Clippers pay in Game 3. He did not in Game 4. It's no coincidence Oklahoma City won the first and lost the second. Ibaka is no stretch four, but he can burn opponents that leave him alone, and therefore open space for Durant and Westbrook. Whether he comes through or not could decide this series. On the other end of the court, the Thunder are throwing a lot of bodies at Blake Griffin, but Ibaka is the primary defender. His length bothers Griffin, as well as just about every power forward in the league, so it's imperative that he stay out of foul trouble and on the floor.
Ben Golliver: Jamal Crawford, Clippers. The recently-crowned Sixth Man of the Year has the ability to win this series for either team. In L.A.'s two wins, he's averaged 17.5 points on 13-for-27 (48.1 percent) shooting; In L.A.'s two losses, he's averaged 13.5 points on 8-for-31 shooting (25.8 percent) shooting. In a series where the four All-Stars (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) have accounted for such a large percentage of the offensive production, there's a game-to-game race to see who can be the Most Valuable Role Player. Crawford can be that guy when he's hitting his shots, playing within himself and getting the calls on his patented four-point players. Likewise, Crawford can take himself out of the running when he's settling for bad threes, struggling to find his stroke and failing to contribute in other categories. He played wingman to Chris Paul's three-point onslaught in Game 1 and he he had multiple key plays during L.A.'s Game 4 comeback. Without Crawford making those types of contributions, it's hard to see L.A. overcoming Oklahoma City's homecourt advantage. With those contributions, the pressure will really ramp up on the likes of Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler -- neither of whome have been consistent scorers this postseason -- to offset Crawford's offense.
Phil Taylor: Doc Rivers, Clippers. The Clippers coach may turn out to be the difference in the series, both because of the way he has kept the team insulated from the Donald Sterling mess, and more importantly, because of his on-court tweaks that have kept the Thunder from being able to take full control. Rivers made what turned out to be a game-changing tactical move in Game 4 when he used 6'1 point guard Chris Paul to defend against 6'11" Kevin Durant, which helped trigger the Clips' 4th quarter comeback. Paul took away one of Durant's weapons -- his ability to get to the basket off the dribble -- and turned him into a post-up player. The strategy took OKC by surprise and Durant missed shots that he probably won't miss again, but Rivers is likely to come up with some new twist for the Thunder to deal with. OKC, meanwhile, essentially does what it does -- rely heavily on Durant and Russell Westbrook to make shots. Rivers has a knack for devising defensive schemes that knock opposing stars out of their comfort zone, and he has kept OKC coach Scott Brooks on his heels. The Thunder's biggest problem is that they don't matchup well against Rivers' brain.
Rob Mahoney: DeAndre Jordan, Clippers. One of the more interesting trends through the first four games of this series is the dive in performance the Clippers take whenever Jordan steps on the court. L.A.'s offense has scored an additional 11.1 points per 100 possessions when Jordan sits in this series relative to when he plays, according to NBA.com, and its defense has been a whopping 24.8 points more stingy without him as well. The samples in play are small enough to exaggerate those figures a bit, though the underlying trends appear relatively consistent across Games 2, 3 and 4: The Clippers, amazingly, have been a better team in this series when playing without their ultra-athletic, power-finishing, bulk-rebounding center.
As far as I can tell, that isn't due to some particular failing of Jordan's. He's still a very limited offensive player, which the Thunder can exploit at times to pressure other Clipper scorers. The larger problem, though, is that Jordan's presence hasn't been as positive an influence as one would expect when Kendrick Perkins is on the floor, and that Jordan's very presence creates some discomfort when Oklahoma City resorts to its smallest lineups. Jordan can match up with Ibaka in those situations without issue, though in doing so he generally shifts Griffin over to guard Durant and is often drawn away from the rim himself in an effort to defend against Ibaka's jumper. That alignment leaves the Clippers' team defense in a rather precarious position, as Griffin is put into a particularly tough individual matchup while his primary help is sometimes drawn out of rotation range.
Jordan's place in this series is rather strange, as he would seem essential in defending the rim and yet his team's worst defensive stretches have come with him on the floor. Still, Jordan leads this series in rebounding (9.5 per game) and trails only Ibaka in blocked shots (1.3); he's clearly not without value in this series. For better or worse, though, Jordan is a huge factor -- he'll continue to play significant minutes, and whether the Clippers can find ways to better use and play off of Jordan more effectively could well determine their playoff fate.
Matt Dollinger: Reggie Jackson, Thunder. If a backup point guard was going to make an impact on this series, you would think it would be the Thunder's Jackson. But there was Darren Collison in Game 4, fueling the Clippers' wild comeback to even the series. Jackson was a big sparkplug for Oklahoma City in the first round, scoring 32 points in one victory and 16 in two others. The Thunder went 20-3 during the regular season when Jackson topped 16 points and are 3-0 when he hits the mark this postseason. But he's averaging just 8 points per game against the Clippers and had a -22 plus/minus rating in Sunday's defeat. Oklahoma City needs Jackson to be the positive force he was against the Grizzlies and most of the regular season, not the background contributor he's been of late.
Chris Johnson: DeAndre Jordan, Clippers. One of the key matchups in this series is Blake Griffin against the Thunder's frontcourt. If Griffin, the Clippers’ leading scorer at 23.6 points a game, can consistently finish at the rim against Serge Ibaka and the rest of Oklahoma City’s interior defenders, it can open up other options for Los Angeles’ offense. Jordan could help swing that matchup in Griffin’s favor. Although he’s helped out on the glass the last two games – clearing 10 and seven rebounds, respectively – Jordan is yet to score more than 10 points in this series. In Sunday’s Game 4 win, he attempted only five shots and scored seven points. Of course, the Clippers have other scoring threats, including Griffin and Chris Paul, and they’ve shown they don’t need Jordan to score a lot of points to win. Still, his 25-point, 18-rebound effort in the Clippers’ 10-point win in Game 5 of their first round series against Golden State is proof Jordan can be an impactful scorer. As this series heads back to Oklahoma City, one big game from the Clippers' center could make a huge difference.