The Oklahoma City Thunder notched a hard-fought 107-101 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, and the only certain takeaway from the heavyweight slugfest was this: We're going to need another seven games to figure out which team has the upper hand.
With the regular-season series now complete and knotted at two games apiece, neither team can claim supremacy. But both OKC and the Clips look stout enough to take care of business in their first-round postseason matchups, which will lead to what should be an epic second-round tilt.
The record, all squared up, doesn't tell us much about how that series might unfold, but there were some signs from Wednesday's game (and the three previous engagements) that provide a few hints.
Small-Ball is a No-Go
For a while now, everyone with a pair of eyes has been screaming that Kendrick Perkins shouldn't see the floor for the Thunder. Gradually, OKC has come to accept that as well, reducing Perkins' minutes and using rookie Steven Adams, veteran Nick Collison or a small-ball approach instead.
Undersized lineups should theoretically work for OKC, and for the most part, they do. With Serge Ibaka at the 5 and Kevin Durant sliding into the power forward spot, the Thunder become a terrifyingly athletic bunch.
Against the Clippers on Wednesday, Oklahoma City nearly rode that strategy to disaster.
When Steven Adams came out of the game with 8:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Thunder held an 89-77 advantage. That lead continued to look comfortable for another 90 seconds until DeAndre Jordan checked back into the game for the Clippers.
With Ibaka forced to cover Jordan and Durant battling the much stronger Blake Griffin, the Thunder were physically outmatched. So by the time head coach Scott Brooks forced himself to toss Perkins back out there at the 5:28 mark, the Clippers had closed the gap to just three points.
They'd done it through brute force, bulk in the paint and a couple of offensive rebounds.
That's just one example, but it seems clear that OKC can't get away with a smaller lineup against the Clippers. Jordan actually finishes games this year, which is a change from the Vinny Del Negro regime when DJ spent many a final period on the pine.
As you might imagine, this is a tough situation for the Thunder. They don't want to use Perkins, Adams is raw, Hasheem Thabeet is barely an NBA player and small-ball doesn't really work against the Clippers. The Thunder held on to win, but they showed some pretty serious vulnerability in doing so.
It's no secret that injuries are part of the narrative for every NBA team. The Thunder have had their share this year, as have the Clippers.
But it's telling to note OKC has had all hands on deck in all four meetings with Los Angeles this season, while the Clips haven't enjoyed the same luxury.
Jamal Crawford was unavailable for Wednesday's contest because of his lingering calf injury, Matt Barnes missed matchup No. 2 back in November and J.J. Redick sat out the Feb. 23 meeting. Those are all rotation players who provide real value for L.A., yet the Clippers managed to achieve a split this year without a fully healthy roster. The Thunder have to be concerned that the Clippers could reach another level if their entire rotation gets right.
To be fair, Darren Collison did well to fill in for Crawford, burying a huge three with just over a minute remaining that answered what appeared to be a decisive triple from Durant on the previous possession. And he somehow managed to avoid being dominated by Westbrook until the final couple of possessions when the OKC bulldog chomped on a couple of critical offensive rebounds.
But there's no getting around the fact that Crawford would have made a bigger impact, if healthy.
When combined with the question marks lingering about Westbrook's thrice-surgically-repaired knee, the health comparison, and specifically L.A.'s potential to get even better, clearly favors Los Angeles.
It's not just matchups and health that would seem to favor the Clippers in a potential playoff series. There's also the curious tendency of the Thunder's defense to completely forget about open shooters. That's what happened on the aforementioned Collison triple, and it's been an issue all season.
Granted, Oklahoma City spent much of the early going displaying the kind of defensive speed and tenacity that helped it post the league's fourth-best defensive rating a year ago. There were flashes, to be sure.
But for the most part, OKC's defense has been spotty (to put it mildly) this season. Though checking in at fifth overall, the Thunder have ranked 13th since the All-Star break, per NBA.com.
And then there's the coaching disparity. Poor Scott Brooks has become everybody's favorite punching bag over the past few seasons, and some of his strategic decisions on Wednesday brought down the inevitable derisive criticism from Twitter:
Brooks has improved in his time at the helm, but nobody would ever give him an edge over Doc Rivers. We can chalk up yet another advantage for the Clips in the coaching department.
The Proven Duo
For all of the preceding signs that seem to favor the Clippers in a playoff series, the Thunder have one thing that might very well give them the edge.
Well, two actually.
Westbrook and Durant are still the NBA's most dangerous tandem when both are playing their best. OKC's rabid point guard threw down a tip dunk in the closing minutes, played the entire game with utter fearlessness and even hauled in a handful of key rebounds in traffic, seemingly through willpower alone.
Westbrook remains a force of nature, something even the absurd athleticism of Griffin and Jordan can't match.
And Durant is, quite simply, the best player in the league right now. He hit the Clips for 27 points (to complement Westbrook's 30) and drilled a massive three at at the 1:31 mark of the fourth quarter after struggling to find his stroke all game.
Remember, KD and Westbrook have been to the Finals. They've seen the big stage. That's something none of the Clippers' key players can say.
So for all of the apparent advantages that would seem to tip this current stalemate in the Clips' favor, never forget that top talent almost always wins in the NBA. For that reason, it'd be crazy to count Durant and Westbrook's team out.
The Only Certainty
A series between the Clippers and Thunder would feature plenty of matchup tinkering as OKC tried to find a frontcourt solution for Griffin and Jordan. It'd also include some inevitable coaching gaffes by Brooks, a potentially healthy Clippers roster that could pose new problems and a whole lot of star power on both sides.
Based on recent play, the statistical edge has to go to the Clippers, though. They've posted a plus-nine net rating since the All-Star break that dwarfs OKC's plus-4.8. That's more a statement on both teams' overall performance than an analysis of how they match up against one another, but it can't be discounted.
You can bet Durant and Westbrook won't care about net ratings if they meet the Clippers in a do-or-die series. Instead, they'll be extra motivated to stick it to a Clippers team that refuses to give the Thunder credit for winning a brutally tough road contest.
After Wednesday's loss, Griffin told reporters: "We kind of put it on ourselves. Seventeen-point deficit, you're not going to win many of those games. We fought back into it but we put the pressure on ourselves. I don't think it's really anything they did."
I guess that means there's something else you can comfortably wager on in the event these two teams meet again: It'll be awesome theater.
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