The Clippers had to go through a lot to get to this matchup with the Thunder. There’s the possibility that the mental exhaustion of dealing with the Donald Sterling fiasco will catch up to them at some point in these playoffs, but they did manage to squeak through their high-octane 1st round series.
Oklahoma City’s path was a bit different. They ran into a surprisingly frisky Memphis team that unearthed one of Kevin Durant’s toughest defenders in Tony Allen to push the series to seven games. Had Zach Randolph not been suspended for the final game of the series, the Thunder may not still be standing.
You can expect this series to be a high-scoring affair. In their four regular season meetings, only once did one of the sides fail to reach 100 points. The Clippers have ranked 2nd so far in the playoffs in offensive efficiency. The Thunder are only in the middle of the pack, but Oklahoma City was facing a very stout defense featuring last year’s defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol, and Allen, who was created in a lab to defend Durant. L.A. meanwhile went against a Warriors squad lacking its defensive anchor due to Andrew Bogut’s injury.
The Clippers don’t have anyone close to Allen’s league when it comes to defending Durant. Matt Barnes is a long competitor who should be able to at least stay with him, but there may be a need for some extended Danny Granger minutes if KD actually catches on fire at some point (not outside the realm of possibility this season). Extended Granger minutes could be bad news for the Clippers’ offense. That’s all relative of course, as the Chris Paul–Blake Griffin duo would be hard to stop with Stephen Hawking playing all of the other positions. Any competent NBA player can find their niche working around those two.
Griffin’s matchup with Serge Ibaka will be one of the defining battles in a series filled with interesting matchups. During the regular season Griffin struggled greatly with Ibaka on the floor, shooting just 47.4% from the field and pulling down under 8 rebounds per 36 minutes when Ibaka was on the court versus 55.6% and 15.2 rebounds per 36 in the rest of the time Griffin played against the Thunder. If Ibaka shuts down Griffin that thoroughly in this series the Clippers are toast.
Doc Rivers would be wise to try to get Griffin more time against the other bigs; Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins just don’t have the athleticism to keep up with him. Pulling Griffin early in the 1st and 3rd quarters (the same way Dallas does with Dirk Nowitzki) would allow him more time against the Thunder’s 2nd unit, though Scotty Brooks could counter this by simply benching Ibaka early as well.
The other major matchup of note may end up being more symbolic than real. Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul play the same position on paper, but Westbrook’s size and Paul’s craftiness will make cross-matches a tempting option. OKC has the better answer of the two, as Thabo Sefolosha will definitely spend some time on Paul and will try to use his size to frustrate the State Farm agent.
The Clippers’ options are far more limited, especially given that the top wings will be focusing their attention on Durant. Paul will be left to the task more often than not unless things start getting dicey. J.J. Redick is a good team defender, but is far from an ideal option to cover an athletic beast like Westbrook, and looking to the bench reveals such killer defenders as Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford. The Clips will have to rely on their team defense and the presence of DeAndre Jordan at the rim to force midrange shots. If they’re lucky they can coax the Thunder into isolation offense that limits the damage caused by having two killer scorers on the court at the same time.
Crawford will at least be able to offer some scoring punch off the bench, and may frustrate the OKC defense if he gets hot. On the other side, Derek Fisher will still get his minutes in his quest to hit the 1,000,000 games played mark, while Reggie Jackson can create a little havoc off the dribble for the 2nd unit.
This series should be tight and fun to watch (except for the inevitable Griffin-Steven Adams scuffle), but it’s going to be tough for the Clippers to advance. They’ll need to move the ball quickly to force the Thunder’s sometimes jumpy defense to contort itself in uncomfortable ways while also encouraging one-on-one play on the other end. Unfortunately for them it’s possible that even if they manage that, the athleticism and talent on the other side may still be too much to handle.