The Clippers, arguably the quietest of the West’s contenders, are being tested. Their already thin roster has been teased apart by injury, most notable the staph infection that will sideline All-Star forward Blake Griffin for the next 4-6 weeks. Doc Rivers has no means to replace his production, and with an added injury to reserve big man Glen Davis on Sunday, Rivers loses even the most straightforward means to fill Griffin’s lost minutes.
It was this, among other things, that doomed the Clippers to a 131-108 loss in Sunday’s matinee against the Thunder. At full health and full speed, L.A. is the top-ranked offense in the league in spite of its flaws. With any absence among its core players, however, that efficiency crumbles. There isn’t enough rotation-caliber talent in store on the Clipper bench to manage much hardship. Yet at present, that group must account for the loss of two starters (Griffin and J.J. Redick) as well as a needed reserve in Davis. The rotation can only be shortened and tweaked so much to account for the fact that only one member of the Clipper bench (Jamal Crawford) ought to be playing regular NBA minutes.
As such, the Thunder ran up the score on the Clippers in the margins. Kevin Durant scored in surges and finished with 29 points on just 15 shots. Russell Westbrook worked his way to 19 points on the day with rebounding (11 boards in total) and playmaking (five assists) in complement. Yet it was the work of those Thunder players on harmony that expanded the lead whenever possible. Reggie Jackson, Mitch McGary, and Dion Waiters scored a combined 50 on 19-of-25 shooting from the field. That should not happen in an NBA game, but at the moment the Clippers don’t look to have the pieces to create a functional NBA rotation.
There’s reinvention to be done at the top of the roster as well, which didn’t exactly play to form in Griffin's absence. Oklahoma City didn’t play Spencer Hawes, who filled in for Griffin, so closely. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison wandered a bit in help. The entire defense tilted toward the movement of Chris Paul, safe in the fact that the ranks of Clipper creators had been reduced to a critical minimum. What doesn’t go through Paul or Crawford can be handled simply and directly. What does has to be seen through to the very end by one of the two – be it with a basket or a feed so direct that it demands little of its recipient. Asking the supporting Clippers to do too much with the ball brings trouble, and yet without Griffin it becomes dramatically easier for teams to key in on Paul.
That Paul is as talented and cunning as he is allowed him to put together a tidy 18 points (on 54-percent shooting) and 13 assists on Sunday. That it wasn’t enough – even with Hawes contributing a season-high 17 points – speaks volumes. Not every opponent on the Clippers schedule will be as capable as the Thunder, though most will be; out of the 11 games Griffin will miss through an optimistic projection for his return, eight are against Western Conference playoff teams. That is an especially bad stretch of schedule to tackle short-handed, yet the Clips have no other choice but to flail to keep their heads above water.
On some nights they’ll manage. Paul is that good and the combination of Hawes and DeAndre Jordan has been serviceable enough to hold up for certain stretches. If Hawes can be better than he’s been – and there’s reason to think that might be possible, given his off-rhythm underperformance – then the Clippers can stretch their margins a touch further and survive more of their bench’s drop-off. A return for Redick, who is day-to-day with back spasms, should also help solidify the starters while allowing Matt Barnes to shift up to power forward. Any little hedge against freefall matters for a team withou stability.
That bodes especially true in the West, where the Clippers are currently in the playoff mix but not so firmly as to feel comfortable with their upcoming schedule. If things get rough during Griffin's absence, the margin between L.A. and the lot on the playoff cusp (Phoenix, New Orleans, and OKC) could evaporate. Security does not exist in this conference. Some teams may face bigger stakes than others with their every win and loss, but any losing stretch could shake up seeding to define the season all the same. Soon we'll come to see what role the Clippers have to play in the West's theater – one shaped in part by a hard month on account of all that this potential contender does not have.