It feels as if a year has passed since the Los Angeles Clippers dropped Game 1 of their opening-round series against the Golden State Warriors. And yet, the road to a championship is still just beginning.
Doc Rivers’ crew was able to overcome extraordinary hardships in Round 1. The Donald Sterling saga created an off-court distraction at the least opportune time, which had a profound effect on the team’s head coach.
After news broke that the owner had made racist comments, the Clips had to play a road matchup at Oracle Arena. The team’s psyche was clearly and understandably rattled. Four early Clippers turnovers contributed to a 39-24 Golden State lead after the first quarter—a lead the Dubs never relinquished.
Through it all, the Clippers managed to fight back and win the series against a talented yet undermanned Warriors squad.
“We needed that. The adversity is good for us,” Rivers said after the 126-121 Game 7 win.
Although it’s Rivers' job to put a positive spin on a series that came down to the closing seconds, the challenge of facing the Oklahoma City Thunder—a superior team compared to GSW—is an entirely different animal.
Contrary to the first-round matchup with Golden State, Clippers big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will no longer hold a distinct advantage in the frontcourt.
Mark Jackson’s undersized interior of David Lee, Draymond Green and Marreese Speights didn’t present LA’s two skyscrapers with many problems. OKC’s front line of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams and Nick Collison, however, provides a balanced mix of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance.
Can Griffin and Jordan be as effective through back-downs and lobs now that the Thunder frontcourt is standing firmly in their way? That will be a huge X-factor for the Clippers.
Griffin averaged 23.3 points per game on 52.8 percent shooting against the Warriors. He posted 35 and 32 points, respectively, in Games 2 and 3—both Clippers wins.
Jordan, meanwhile, exploded for a transcendent Game 5. His hulking frame led the way for L.A. with 25 points, 18 rebounds and four swats.
The outburst came just two days removed from a letdown Game 4 performance, in which the 25-year-old didn’t score a point. After the 118-97 blowout loss, the free-throw-impaired center sent a text message to Doc that said, “This wasn’t me. I’ll be back,” per the Daily Mail’s Luke Augustus.
He returned in a big way and led the charge on the glass all series by hauling in 15.1 rebounds per contest.
The broad shoulders of Griffin and Jordan will have to carry a significant load once again.
Challenge for CP3
Despite playing hobbled, Chris Paul dug deep for an elite performance in Game 7. He finished the night with 22 points, 14 assists and four steals. He also said during his postgame interview on TNT that he responded to the coaching staff’s suggestion of resting him on defense with the following sentiment: “To hell with that.”
CP3 is a bona fide floor general who relishes a challenge. He wasn’t going to put the burden of guarding Stephen Curry on any of his teammates. The Warriors' star point guard still finished with 33 points, but Paul took on the responsibility of defending him throughout the night.
It certainly didn’t look as if his hamstring was ailing him during the affair, which is good news for Clippers fans. The bad news is he’ll have to defend Russell Westbrook for stretches in Round 2.
No disrespect to Curry and Klay Thompson, but Westbrook is a relentless offensive player. He can spot up for threes, run the pick-and-roll and, most notably, isolate and get to the rim. His athletic ability and merciless style of play is going to be a nuisance for Paul.
According to a tweet by ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie, OKC was an alarmingly better club when Westbrook was on the floor.
It is to be expected that the point guard makes his team far better when he’s on the court. More than 20 points per 48 minutes better, though, is downright ridiculous.
Per a tweet by Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears, Rivers said that he’ll put different defensive assignments on Westbrook to spell Paul.
Will that be enough to slow the UCLA product down? Can CP3 be relied upon to contain Westbrook consistently? If he isn’t at 100 percent from a health standpoint, the answer is no.
Kevin Durant averaged 32.5 points per game in four contests against the Clippers during the regular season. That included a 42-point explosion on Feb. 23.
Simply put, LA doesn’t have anyone on the roster who can guard the MVP front-runner. Matt Barnes will likely be handed that responsibility as his team’s starting small forward. Expecting him to make an impact after Memphis Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen shut KD down for stretches of the first-round series, though, is a fool's errand.
KD is likely going to play like a man possessed, because he knows the Clippers don’t have any favorable matchups to use against him.
Durant and Westbrook are going to get their points in this series. It’s that simple.
Granted, the two superstars usually score in bulk anyway. However, the defensive assignments they’ll see in this series won’t compare to the defenders they faced against Memphis.
For the Clippers to win this series, or at least have a chance, they’ll need to lock down OKC’s supporting cast. Guys like Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher have to be prevented from contributing.
LA has yet to win a playoff game past the first round since CP3’s arrival. Expect that to change in 2014, but the Larry O’Brien trophy is still 12 wins away.