Jamal Crawford provides depth for the Los Angeles Clippers. (Facebook/Los Angeles Clippers)
The Clippers-Thunder series has been the most difficult to predict of the four series remaining. Before game one, there was no good way to break down this series in a way that made you feel comfortable with your prediction. You could analyze the four games they played against each other during the regular season or how each team fared in their respective first round matchups to figure out which team had the edge, but neither of those methods put the series in a relevant context.
There are countless reasons why previews based on regular season matchups are a bad barometer: they don’t take into account injuries; one team could’ve been playing a game on the second night of a back-to-back; playoff possessions are more valuable to the nth degree; playoff games are coached differently; the stakes are obviously different. And so on.
And as far as using their first round series as examples, both the Thunder and Clippers faced two teams (Grizzlies and Warriors respectively) that presented an entirely different set of challenges than they face today.
The great thing about this series being tied 2-2 after four exhilarating games is that both these teams not only have a feel for each other better than they ever have, but the series becomes a three-game series, which raises the stakes and the importance of every possession even more.
At this point, both teams have figured out each other’s rotations, their idiosyncrasies, the tendencies of each individual player, they can read the body language of certain players, they know which player/s a coach turns to in times of desperation, how teams react collectively to adversity, and most importantly, the teams have grown a dislike for one another.
This is the kind of scenario that will make any basketball junkie salivate.
One thing that remains the same as it did before the series began is that this series is stillarguably a toss-up. But besides that, these past four games have changed the way this series should be looked at. Here are the three keys to winning this three-game “series.”
3. The Clippers’ depth versus the Thunder’s pedigree
A deep roster is great for the regular season. It helps teams manage their rosters through 82 games, and it gives coaches extra viable options to develop chemistry. It’s like having extra chess pieces.
The Clippers’ deep roster helped them deal with Chris Paul’s lengthy absence and it helped Doc Rivers calibrate the dynamics of his roster to get a good sense of where the pieces fit. It has also helped them find that elusive third scoring option because there are so many guys in their rotation that, on most nights, at least one player will have a good enough night to get the win. It’s just math. They’re like an NFL team with eleven draft picks; they’re bound to be right on at least one or two.
But at times throughout this series—and to a lesser extent, against the Warriors—the Clippers have fallen into holes because there are so many guys coming in and out of the lineup. This gives the Clippers less time than the Thunder with the same five guys on the floor, and this is when the Clippers’ depth backfires on them.
The Thunder, on the other hand, have a much more compact rotation. This can help or hurt them for the exact opposite reasons as the Clippers. One characteristic they have that the Clippers are still developing is that they’re battle tested. Although the Clippers have responded to adversity this postseason better than they ever have in the Griffin-Paul era, the Thunder have the upper hand here.
2. Can Westbrook and Durant have a semblance of chemistry for three games?
We’ve watched this movie before. For all the success Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have had, the one issue that has plagued them over the years has been their chemistry.
Whether it’s during the regular season or in the postseason, the first thing the media point to any time the Thunder are stuck in a rut is to whether these two can make things work.
It’s easy to point the finger at Westbrook because there have been times when he’s been dead cold from the floor (particularly the 0-for-14 stretch he had in fourth quarters and overtimes during the first few games of their series against the Grizzlies). But there have been games, such as game two against the Clippers, in which Westbrook has taken the initiative and the Thunder have succeeded. Sometimes it all comes down to whether he’s making all those shots he takes away from Durant.
But here’s a telling stat: In the past six games, Westbrook has had 17 assists in their three losses and 39 assists in three wins.
1. Which team’s third option will make the biggest impact?
The Clippers have the edge here for the aforementioned mathematical reasons. Darren Collison was the hero in the last game, and they’ve had other guys step in sporadically throughout the series. The one way the Clippers can steal this series is if someone steps up to make a major impact.
Jamal Crawford had 17 points in game one, 7 points in game two, and 20 and 18 points in games three and four. Those are fine numbers from Crawford, but anyone who has watched him this season will agree that he has yet to take over a moment the way he has throughout the year. If the reigning Sixth Man Award winner does that in any of the following three games, the Clippers’ chances of winning that game increase dramatically because, unlike in previous years where Griffin was inconsistent in big moments, now you could pencil-in Griffin to get his usual share of points in a game.
Although the Thunder don’t have the same number of guys as the Clippers who can contribute in a meaningful way, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, and Reggie Jackson have all contributed for them this series.
Prediction: Thunder in 7
This will be as close a series as most predicted, but Westbrook and Durant will be able to make things work because they’ve made things work before. The issues with the Westbrook/Durant dynamic will continue to be a problem for the Thunder in the future, but with the finish line in sight for both teams, both players are well aware of the stakes and will be more willing to oblige to the demands of their position in the short term. What will the Thunder do against San Antonio? That’s a different story. They’ll cross that bridge when they get to it.