The Los Angeles Clippers will face a strenuous test against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the second round of the playoffs, and will need players to step up in order to help the team advance. Keep in mind that this is only the third time since moving to Los Angeles that the Clippers have made it out of the first round.
Thankfully, a week of seemingly insurmountable emotional pressure only made the team stronger, and more unified, toward their ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship.
There are the obvious names that will pop up for who needs to carry the team on their backs. While Chris Paul will likely be one of those names, this series will be about more than what Paul can do with the ball in his hands. There are three players who are going to play vital roles at three different levels and areas on the floor: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes.
The Clippers’ hope of advancing to their first Western Conference Finals revolves around how well these three players impact the game. Griffin’s all-around ability, Jordan’s defense and rebounding and Barnes’ defense are the keys for the Clippers. I know that sounds like a lot to rely on, but that is what it is going to take in order to win what looks to be the best playoff series of the season.
Perhaps not a player most expected to see on this list, but certainly one of the most important players in the series. Barnes will have the difficult task of covering the likely league MVP, Kevin Durant. Barnes’ length and athleticism will be called upon to make Durant uncomfortable offensively; much like Tony Allen did in Round 1.
Nobody expects Barnes to “stop” Durant. What he needs to do is stick to him like glue on the perimeter and not commit silly fouls, something he has been prone to over the course of his career. Expect to see Barnes jumping out on Durant as soon as he crosses half court and pressuring him into traps off ball screens.
Finally, Barnes will need to hit the open jumpers the Thunder concede. Barnes will likely have plenty of room to shoot for the perimeter, as the Thunder will key in on Griffin, Paul, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. If he can successfully stick to Durant on defense and hit a few threes each game, the Clippers will be in good shape.
Perhaps the most impressive performance of Jordan’s career came during the first-round series with the Golden State Warriors. Jordan was everywhere on both sides of the ball. More importantly, he dominated the paint and the glass, averaging a stellar 12.1 points, 15.1 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. The Clippers likely do not advance without Jordan’s performance.
Although the Thunder do most of their damage from the perimeter, Jordan’s primary focus will be controlling the glass, again, but also making life difficult for the Thunder in transition. Jordan needs to sprint back on defense, especially with Russell Westbrook pushing the ball in transition, Jordan tells Clippers.com writer, Eric Patten:
We’ve got to get back in transition and stop the ball and load up to [Durant] and [Westbrook] as much as possible. We have to limit those guys to just one shot. That means controlling the glass. And make them hit tough shots. They already have the MVP and two of the best scorers in our league. We can’t get give them any easy looks.
One could easily swap Griffin’s name for Paul here, but Griffin remains the key to the team. The Clippers looked like a different team this season when Paul went down with an injury and Griffin took over. Griffin proved that his array of skills was diverse enough to run the offense through. Additionally, his increased offensive aggressiveness made playing him one-on-one nearly impossible.
The same rings true for this series. Paul will have his way on the perimeter—he always does. However, it will be Griffin’s play that decides the series. The Clippers have come up short the last two seasons, in part, due to Griffin’s play. This year looks to be different.
Willing and able to shoot jumpers out to 20 feet, Griffin’s expanded range has made it nearly impossible to guard his pick-and-roll/pop sets with Paul. Furthermore, The Thunder’s defense will be extended out on the perimeter, due to Griffin’s improved jumper, allowing Paul to operate with more freedom.