The Los Angeles Clippers are on a four-game winning streak and now have a chance to make it five against the rival Oklahoma City Thunder. The team is just a half game behind the defending Western Conference champs, and a win would push Lob City into second in the West’s standings.
Los Angeles has lost to Oklahoma City twice already this season, and a loss tonight means more than just losing ground in the race for the top seed. On top of that, Oklahoma City would also sweep the season series.
The fact that both teams like to play a fast-paced game should make for an interesting matchup, particularly because both teams are so balanced on both sides of the floor.
On a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game, all fans should tune in to what is going to be an intense match from start to finish.
Time: Sunday, March 3, 3:30 p.m. ET
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (42-16) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (43-18)
Betting Line: Not available as of Saturday, March 2, 9:34 a.m. ET
Injuries: Trey Thompkins (knee, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Lob City Seeks to Gain Ground and Avoid Season Sweep
As was mentioned before, a win for the Clippers means taking over second place in the Western Conference. They definitely have the momentum having won four straight, but history is not exactly on their side against the Thunder, winners of three of four.
Both teams first met this season back on Nov. 21 in an absolute shootout at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Thanks to 35 points from Kevin Durant, the Thunder managed a 117-111 victory in an overtime thriller. OKC also shot an astounding 48 percent from long range.
The two fast-paced squads met again at the Staples Center on Jan. 22, and the Thunder took full advantage of the Clippers not having Chris Paul in the lineup. Oklahoma City shot 56 percent from long range and rode 32 points from Durant to a 109-97 victory.
But Los Angeles is fully stocked for the third and final round. Paul is back in the lineup, and Lob City is in full swing.
Yes, the Thunder are the top scoring team in the league, but their defense ranks just 13th in the league, while the Clippers’ is fourth.
The stage is thus set for the ultimate revenge game, and one that could make quite a difference once the playoffs come around.
Key Matchup: Blake Griffin vs. Serge Ibaka
One of the key members of Los Angeles’ offense is power forward Blake Griffin, whose thunderous dunks helped make Lob City a household name. Blessed with great size at 6’10” and 251 pounds, this season has been another great one for the former Oklahoma Sooner.
Griffin is averaging 18.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, shooting 55 percent from the field. Over his last five games, he has posted 18.6 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the field.
However, as great as Griffin’s numbers are, his game is one-sided. Besides dunks and high-percentage shots, his offensive approach is fairly weak. He doesn’t have much of a low post game and on defense, he’s hit or miss.
As a result, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka will need to use his signature pesky defense to ensure that Griffin struggles from start to finish. Also of solid size at 6’10”, 235 pounds, Ibaka has shown marked improvement on both sides of the court this season.
On top of his 7.9 rebounds and three blocks per game, Ibaka has also shown great development on offense. He is averaging 13.6 points on 56 percent shooting over his last five games, and he has posted 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks while shooting an unbelievable 63 percent from the floor.
Against Griffin, Ibaka’s strategy is going to be simple: Don’t give him any easy opportunities. This means forcing him into the low post and taking hard shots, refusing to be dunked on and become yet another victim of Lob City.
So long as this type of smothering defense can contain Griffin, Oklahoma City has a shot at winning handily. Otherwise, this game is going to be closer than anyone could have anticipated.
X-Factor: Jamal Crawford
One of the only ways to keep up with the Thunder is to match them point for point in scoring, and that requires a spark. On Los Angeles' end, Jamal Crawford has gone above and beyond that role, making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year.
The former Michigan Wolverine is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and a respectable 38 percent from long range, but his performance over his last few games has been even better.
In Los Angeles' last five contests, of which Crawford has appeared in four, he has posted 18.5 points and shot an amazing 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown.
This can be attributed to the fact that Crawford is a pure scorer and absolutely amazing at what he does. He can drive the lane, dunk, create off the dribble and just be an offensive force.
The man needs to be that and more off the bench against the Thunder. They are a team that likes to score points, and Crawford is the key to the Clippers maintaining pace and potentially winning.
That means being fully locked in and ready to compete in this nationally televised game, and a bad game from Crawford could mean a Clippers loss.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Chauncey Billups
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
The Clippers want to win this game badly, and they'll get their wish. Lob City will be in full swing as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin connect for multiple dunks, and maybe even Eric Bledsoe will get in on the fun.
Oklahoma City will put up a respectable effort, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both scoring in high double figures and Serge Ibaka being a defensive machine, per usual. Kevin Martin will also come off the bench and put up some impressive numbers.
But the fact of the matter is that this game is being played at the Staples Center, which means that Clipper Darrell will have the fans roaring from start to finish. This gives Los Angeles a distinct advantage that not even the best players can get past, and thanks to a run that begins late in the third quarter, the Clippers will have this one in the bag and overtake the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Clippers 109, Oklahoma City Thunder 101
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com