It must be March.
Miami and Oklahoma City both came away with impressive wins on this Sunday, with the Thunder in particular showcasing their talent and experience on national television and reminding both the Clippers and fans of the NBA as a whole that they are still, in fact, the defending Western Conference champions.
For as impressive as the Clippers have looked at times this year against some of the lower-tier playoff teams like the Lakers and the Warriors, they have royally flopped against real championship contenders such as the Spurs and Thunder. On Sunday afternoon, the Clippers’ flaws were exposed early and often, and we were reminded of just how much of a match-up nightmare this Thunder team is for their opponents.
The Clippers offense was stagnant early as Kendrick Perkins set the tone for the game by being extremely physical with Blake Griffin and throwing the Clippers’ attack off-kilter. While both teams play a fast, up and down style initiated by their superstar point guards, the Thunder are simply a better team. Consider the respective point guards for the Clippers and the Thunder: Westbrook is supposedly the wild, uncontrolled, shooting guard in a point guard’s body, while Chris Paul is the calm, collected, pass-first, prototypical point guard.
But which team plays under control? Which team is more collected, and calmly dices the opposition, usually dictating the exact pace that they prefer? Certainly not the Clippers. When faced with adversity this season, the Clippers have too often clammed up, relying on Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin isolation plays or being perfectly content with jacking up long three-point shots early in the shot clock in an effort to shoot themselves back into games. For most of the afternoon, at least, the problems persisted for the Clippers.
On Sunday in Los Angeles, the more physical and aggressive-but-controlled Oklahoma City Thunder ran the Clippers off the court for much of the tilt. Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and the aggressive penetration of Durant and Westbrook forced Griffin to commit two personal fouls in the opening four minutes of the game, and his replacement, Lamar Odom, committed three fouls of his own before the quarter was complete. It was a sloppy period, but the Clippers’ nine turnovers helped the Thunder take a 27-20 lead into the second frame.
The Clippers tried being more active in the second quarter, but their spacing was poor and they began hoisting long jumpers. Without Chris Paul on the floor, the Clippers’ transition offense was horrible, and Los Angeles missed a number of opportunities to draw closer. Even when Paul came back into the game, the offense remained rushed and inefficient. The half ended with the Clippers having committed an astonishing 15 turnovers, and Paul only having managed 4 points on 1 of 7 shooting. The Clippers also only had one fastbreak basket in the first half, as the Thunder’s hustle and athleticism was too much for the home team’s sloppy play in the open floor.
The Thunder dominated for the majority of the third quarter, leading by as much as nineteen points with four minutes remaining in the period. The Clippers managed a small burst of offense as Oklahoma City broke away from their offensive flow and began to settle for long jump shots. Paul converted an old-fashioned three-point play with less than a second remaining, and the Clippers counted their blessings as they entered the final frame trailing by only nine points at 82-73.
Clippers’ coach Vinny Del Negro made a surprisingly adept coaching decision in calling for a zone early in the fourth quarter, causing the Thunder fell into their all-too-frequent fourth quarter habit of allowing an inferior opponent keep a game within a competitive margin. On Sunday, the Thunder allowed Los Angeles to come all the way back and only held a 91-90 lead with about four minutes left. Westbrook and Kevin Martin asserted themselves by getting into the paint and scoring on two consecutive possessions, expanding the visitors’ lead to 95-90 before the 3:00 mark.
Thankfully for the Thunder, the Clippers’ threw away just enough possessions on Jamal Crawford isolation plays that the comeback was stalled. Del Negro’s squad was bailed out by a blatant Serge Ibaka below-the-belt shot on Griffin from Serge Ibaka while Matt Barnes’ drained a corner three. Somehow, Ibaka was only assessed a Flagarant-1 foul, and Griffin made one of his two free throw attempts. After a Crawford missed three-pointer, the Clippers got the offensive rebound and Crawford converted on his next try, giving the Clippers a 7-point possession and a 101-100 lead with just over a minute remaining.
Out of a timeout, Westbrook scored on a layup, Griffin pushed Perkins in the back to draw an offensive foul, and then fouled Ibaka under the basket on the other end, fouling out of the game and giving the Thunder a 104-100 lead. The visitors cruised the rest of the way en route to an eventual 108-104 victory.
On Vinny Del Negro and late-game coaching….
As much as the Clippers’ zone defense stymied the Thunder’s offense early in the fourth quarter, the late-game offense deployed by Del Negro was certainly questionable. One would think that the offense would run through Paul each and every time down the court, but the Clippers continually threw the ball to Crawford on the wing and got out of the away, allowing him to “create” offense. This included a barrage of missed shots and a critical turnover in the final minutes. Crawford has played very well for the Clippers this year, and has apparently caused people to forget how terrible he was over the past two seasons in Atlanta and Portland, but he is not Chris Paul.
Even when the Clippers’ chose to use Paul late in the game, Del Negro’s “play call” out of a timeout was a Paul isolation against the bigger Westbrook while the other four players stood in the corners. After Paul tripped and fell, everyone cleared out again as Crawford went one-on-one against Thabo Sefolosha and was bailed out by a foul call at the rim.
Why not call an actual play with movement? Any movement at all, really. Asking your diminutive backcourt to go one-on-one against a much larger pair of guards simply will not result in very many wins, and Del Negro has to realize this. Most coaches that Del Negro will face come playoff time will out-coach him severely in big moments of close games.