Sure, LAC did take Game 1 with a 122-105 score, and it controlled the contest from the opening tip until the final buzzer. Chris Paul was absolutely fantastic, looking more like a point god than a point guard as he drained eight three-pointers.
One game can make a big difference in a seven-game series, especially when it establishes momentum and steals home-court advantage away from the team with the better seed. Again, though, that isn't the basis behind the claim that LAC is the superior squad in this particular matchup.
There's plenty more to support that.
DeAndre Jordan Necessitates Big Ball
The Thunder are at their best when playing small ball, but the Clippers happen to have a center who simply won't allow them to use that type of lineup.
His name? DeAndre Jordan.
According to NBA.com's statistical databases, Perkins was in only two of the team's top 10 qualified five-man lineups (50 or more minutes played, sorted by point differential) during the regular season. Even though he's a quality defender, he's often a liability against smaller teams, and the Thunder offense is generally at its best when he's allowed to take a seat on the pine.
Basketball-Reference.com shows that there's a pretty large disparity between OKC's performance when he's on and off the court:
And that trend has continued during the postseason:
The defensive disparity has been impressive now that the games really matter, but it's not enough to make up for the lack of offense Perkins brings to the table. No matter how you try to spin it, the Thunder are beating opponents by an additional 3.6 points per 100 possessions when he's sitting down, and that's down from 7.0 during the regular season.
Well, you're going to see a lot of Perkins during this second-round battle.
Who else can even attempt to guard Jordan? Steven Adams is a master at getting under people's skin, but he's an inexperienced rookie who's severely overmatched on both ends of the court. Serge Ibaka isn't big enough and needs to focus on Blake Griffin.
And that's about all the options.
Perkins it is.
In the past, this wouldn't be hugely relevant, but the development of Jordan has necessitated such focus. Even though I broke down his rise to prominence here, it's worth going over one more time, albeit in a more condensed fashion.
During his first season under Doc Rivers, Jordan has developed into more than just an athletic, shot-blocking big man. He's become a ridiculously effective rebounder, a defensive force in the paint and—gasp—a capable offensive contributor.
Throughout this latest foray into the postseason, Jordan is averaging an impressive 11.5 points, 13.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 3.5 blocks per game. Those rebounding and swatting numbers are the highest of any qualified playoff performer.
On top of that, he's shooting a league-best 77.5 percent from the field, knocking down an improved 46.2 percent of his attempts at the charity stripe and producing a player efficiency rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com, of 19.4.
Basically, he's been a stud. Scratch that, a monster, one whom the Thunder will always have to account for, even if it's at the expense of their desired rotations. Of course, this wasn't the case in Game 1, which saw Jordan record a lackluster seven points and five boards while Perkins played 14 minutes, but that was an aberration.
Chances are, Chris Paul won't take over to quite the same extent going forward, and a closer score will lead to a more typical outing from both players. But speaking of CP3...
Who Can Guard the Superstars?
This truly applies to both teams, but LAC is at a bit of an advantage when it comes to unguardable superstars.
Kevin Durant is an unstoppable entity, but he can at least be slightly corralled by the combined efforts of Matt Barnes, Danny Granger and the rest of a wing rotation that's deep enough to always have one quality defender on the court.
Blake Griffin fits into a similar category, as he's such a dynamic offensive player that he's going to get his, despite the best efforts of Ibaka. He managed to finish with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists in Game 1, and it seems almost certain that he'll be even more impressive when he's more of an offensive focus for the Clippers.
But it's at point guard where the disparity looms largest.
Russell Westbrook and CP3 are both matchup nightmares, but the latter is just on a different level, especially during an injury-plagued season that has left the former scrambling to establish some sort of consistency.
Westbrook on Chris Paul: "He hit eight 3s. He wasn't doing nothing crazy. He hit eight 3s."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 6, 2014
Throughout the opening game of the series, Paul routinely torched his 1-guard counterpart, finishing with 32 points and 10 assists on 12-of-14 shooting, which included an 8-of-9 outing from beyond the three-point arc. Westbrook, meanwhile, recorded 29 points and four dimes on the same number of shots, but he also turned the ball over four more times.
As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote after the game:
Paul showed it's possible to look for one's own offense without taking things away from teammates. Westbrook's aggression is a huge part of what makes him great, but we've seen it hurt OKC before. And Paul gave him a perfect example of what a dialed-back approach can accomplish.
On top of that, the Clippers' floor general was setting a tone for the rest of the series.
Chris Paul is shooting that side-hop 3 to set up rest of the series. Making sure his man doesn't cheat on pick-and-roll in ICE situations.— D.J. Foster (@fosterdj) May 6, 2014
By setting up Westbrook (and the rest of the Thunder) to expect jumpers, Paul is ensuring that he'll be able to get to his inside-the-arc spots even easier when his hamstring is fully healed. And that's a terrifying thought for Oklahoma City, seeing as CP3 is one of the deadliest mid-range assassins in the game.
This series features four superstars who can absolutely explode at any given moment. But there's one major difference.
The Thunder offense relies on explosions from Durant (which it often gets) and can often be hurt when Westbrook is trying to live up to that same standard. LAC's offensive schemes call for much more balance and actually require plays, which sets them up to have a much higher floor. And given the talent of CP3 and Blake, the ceiling isn't lower than that of their Oklahoma City counterparts.
Huge Coaching Disparity
When two teams are relatively similar in terms of talent level, it's generally a good idea to take the squad with a better coach. And in this case, "better" is defined as "one capable of making adjustments."
Rivers is for the Clippers. Brooks is not for the Thunder.
The narrative has been beaten to death at this point, but the OKC head coach has an incredibly difficult time showing any sort of creativity in his offensive sets and lineups. He rarely runs plays, especially in late-game situations, with one notable exception—give the ball to Durant/Westbrook and hope.
The Thunder are confused by seeing a team that actually runs sets. Don't see it in practice.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 6, 2014
Rivers, on the other hand, is a great strategist and one of the best in the business at designing plays that get the ball in bounds and in an effective position. He and Brooks are separated by multiple tiers in this regard.
Over a series that could potentially go seven games, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Adjustments aren't just encouraged; they're mandatory as teams realize how other squads are attacking their weaknesses.
And which coach do you trust to make them?
Turning back to Hughes is necessary one more time:
Maybe none of this [the exposure at the hands of CP3] is Westbrook's fault. Maybe he's playing this way because he knows it gives OKC its best chance to win.
After all, asking Westbrook to cool off, move the ball and take care of possessions presupposes a few things about the Thunder's offense we can't be sure are true.
For example, we assume his teammates will be in position to get shots if Westbrook surveys the floor instead of attacking. But maybe the problem is that head coach Scott Brooks' 'system' simply doesn't have options beyond the initial action, which is usually just an isolation or a basic pick-and-roll.
Throughout the year, Durant has been capable of bailing everyone out. But now, that's no longer the case.
Playoff basketball is inherently a more grueling experience than the brand of ball that gets played during the regular season. Possessions last longer, go slower and are more physical. Points are at a premium. More energy is expended.
And all the reliance on Durant during the regular season is taking its toll, as he no longer has that same spring in his step that allowed him to torch opponents during his MVP season. He'll still be a dominant player throughout the postseason, but it's just not enough.
Not against an opponent as talented as the Clippers. Not against a coach who's actually going to make adjustments that make life more difficult for Durant and his teammates on both ends of the court.
Who wins this series?
The Thunder are now in a one-game hole without home-court advantage and facing a far more difficult opponent than they squared off against during the first round of the playoffs. With Brooks at the helm—at least the Brooks we've seen this season—that's biting off a bit too much.
In the past, that's been fine, thanks primarily to the human Heimlich maneuver that is Durant.
But not against these Clippers.