A battle for the Western Conference goes down tonight when the Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center. Both teams have recently lost a game following winning streaks, four games for the Clippers and six for the Thunder.
What makes this game extra-intense is that the Clippers are just a half-game behind the Thunder for the top spot in the highly competitive Western Conference, where playoff seeding could make or break a team. This also happens to be the second time both teams have faced off this season, with the Thunder having pulled off a thrilling overtime victory back on Nov. 21.
Sure enough, now that the scene has changed to the Staples Center from Chesapeake Energy Arena, Lob City is sure to be out for revenge. The team has looked excellent all season long, using its fast-paced offense and equally tough defensive effort to shut down opposing teams.
However, Oklahoma City has a lot to play for as well. They made it to the NBA Finals last season, only to fall victim to the Miami Heat in five games, and have been playing with a more focused intensity this season. The way the Thunder have been performing, anything less than a championship will be considered a failure.
And that will make for an excellent game tonight.
Time: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: NBATV, Fox Sports Oklahoma HD, Prime Ticket
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (32-9) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (32-10)
Betting Line: Oklahoma City (-1), Los Angeles (+1)
Injuries: Trey Thompkins (knee, out), Chauncey Billups (foot, out), Grant Hill (knee, day-to-day), Chris Paul (knee, game-time decision), Russell Westbrook (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Lob City Avenge Loss Against Feisty Thunder?
The Clippers have one mantra going into this game: revenge. They last faced the Thunder in November, and suffered an overtime loss in what was destined to be a tight game from the get-go.
Thanks to 35 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals from Kevin Durant, plus 23 points and nine assists from Russell Westbrook, the Thunder managed to win 117-111. On the Clippers' end, Blake Griffin led the way with 23 points and six rebounds.
Los Angeles has home court advantage tonight, but a win won't at all be easy. Team leader and star point guard Chris Paul may miss yet another game due to a sore knee, and not having him against Oklahoma City puts the team at an immediate and potentially devastating disadvantage.
The high-scoring Clippers must then put a little more focus on defense and while they rank fourth in points allowed, they are just 17th in rebounding. This could pose a challenge for the Thunder, who are first in scoring and 10th in rebounding.
However, Oklahoma City also ranks 14th in points allowed, which could make for a tough matchup tonight. It's going to be fun to watch from start to finish, and fans should definitely tune in to see if the Clippers are able to avenge their loss from earlier in the season.
Key Matchup: Serge Ibaka vs. Blake Griffin
Whether or not Paul is able to play, the Clippers will be relying on Blake Griffin to be a key player on offense. The legendary dunker is averaging 18 points and 8.5 rebounds on the season, down from last year's postings of 20.7 and 10.9, but has still been great as a whole.
Griffin has been just what the Clippers need him to be. An excellent scorer on the inside who also provides solid defense. Granted, Griffin is a bit slow-footed and not exactly what one would call a defensive monster, he has still been a fine player overall and a lock for a great offensive performance night after night.
This is exactly why the Thunder need a solid performance from Serge Ibaka tonight. He needs to continue making his strong case for Defensive Player of the Year and do all he can to shut Griffin down. Both men are 6'10", but Griffin has more overall size at 251 pounds to Ibaka's 235.
Ibaka still needs to be an absolute beast on defense and shut Griffin down, or at least do his best to try. He is averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds on the season, and is second in the league with 2.8 blocks per game.
Simply put, both Ibaka and Griffin need to be great tonight. Griffin must be ready to have an epic scoring performance in the event that Chris Paul misses another game, and Ibaka must be great on defense in shutting down one of Lob City's best weapons.
This could very well be a stalemate, as Griffin scored 23 points against Oklahoma City in November, but Ibaka was able to out-rebound him 12-6. The stage is thus set for an excellent battle, one the fans would be wise not to miss.
X-Factor: Jamal Crawford
Crawford is on a hot streak, and the Clippers need it to continue tonight against Oklahoma City. The former Michigan Wolverine and former Sixth Man of the Year is averaging 16.7 points and shooting 38 percent from three-point range on the season, but his last five games have been exceptional.
Over that stretch, Crawford has averaged 19.8 points while shooting an incredible 48 percent from beyond the arc. He scored 20 points in the teams' first meeting, and he'll need to equal or even improve upon that game tonight.
The fact is that while Chris Paul definitely helps make the Clippers an excellent team, Jamal Crawford helps make them special. He can score from practically anywhere, and his ability to both create off the dribble and drive the lane helps make him a complete player.
The man may not be the strongest of defenders, but that is of little importance. The Clippers brought him aboard to be a spark off the bench and provide instant offense, and he has done exactly that this season.
He'll be expected to do the same against Oklahoma City, and a solid performance from him could be enough to have Los Angeles atop the Western Conference by the end of the game.
This game is going to be close from beginning to end, and could easily be one that needs overtime to decide a winner. That won't be the case tonight, but one thing is certain. The Oklahoma City Thunder shall win again.
Nothing against the Clippers, but the Thunder are just a more balanced team. Los Angeles has been a fine defensive squad this year, but offense is definitely their better strength.
Oklahoma City puts in an equal effort on both ends of the floor and while they may not be as strong as the Clippers in certain areas, they just seem to want the top spot in the Western Conference more. Head coach Scott Brooks wants that Larry O'Brien trophy even more, and has his players stopping at nothing to ensure that no other team raises it by the end of the season.
Who will win?
Thus, look for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to have excellent games yet again tonight. Durant will have a double-double and show off his new commitment to defense, while Westbrook drives the lane and sinks jumpers en route to another excellent scoring game.
Blake Griffin will have a solid game for the Clippers, but not before enduring the smothering D of Serge Ibaka. The Thunder power forward will have a fine rebounding game and have an incredible number of blocks, showing just why he is the best defensive player in the league.
Los Angeles will thus rely on Jamal Crawford to carry them, and one man alone cannot be depended on to lead a team to victory.
As a result, in a close game, the Thunder will win and stay atop the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Los Angeles Clippers 104