One week (and four games) into their second-round NBA playoff series, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers are right where they started.
Tied, with a pivotal game at Chesapeake Energy Arena right around the corner.
A gripping Clippers comeback from 22 points down—16 in the fourth quarter—on Sunday guaranteed this powerhouse matchup would last at least six games. At this point, this series going the distance would be far less a shock than the fulfillment of a foregone conclusion.
Despite snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in LA, the Thunder are still the odds-on favorites to survive what's now been boiled down to a best-of-three matchup. According to ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required), OKC has better than a three-out-of-four chance of advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Much of that advantage stems from the fact that home teams have won nearly 80 percent of NBA Game 7s.
Of course, the Clippers can count themselves among those responsible for the other 20 percent. Two years ago, they went into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies in the seventh game of their first-round series to extend Lob City's maiden playoff voyage.
This particular tiff, though, won't be decided by history's gravitational pull. As much as those numbers can do to set the stage for the next two to three games in more overarching terms, they do little to describe the particulars of this faceoff between an established Western Conference elite in OKC and a budding powerhouse out of LA.
Which team, then, truly has the upper hand heading into this do-or-die week, beginning with an all-important Game 5 on Tuesday?
If there's any one person to whom the Clippers owe their current 2-2 dead heat with OKC—and who might put LA over the top—it's Chris Paul. For all the praise that's been lavished upon the likes of MVP candidate Blake Griffin, defensive dynamo DeAndre Jordan, sparkling Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and plucky backup Darren Collison (and rightfully so), LA's fate ultimately rests in the sure hands of its superstar point guard.
So far, the Clippers have managed to overcome OKC's star power when Paul's gone above and beyond his usual call of duty. In Game 1, Paul was uncharacteristically trigger-happy in outdueling fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook. Paul hit a career-high eight three-pointers on nine attempts (and finishing 12-of-14 from the field overall) on the way to a 32-point night and a commanding 17-point victory for the visitors.
In Game 4, Paul helped to parlay Doc Rivers' "desperate coaching" (h/t ESPN's J.A. Adande) into a stirring comeback to stave off a 3-1 series deficit. He spent much of the second half attached to Durant, with quick Clippers double-teams to compensate for the severe size disparity between the two.
Durant got his (21 after halftime, 40 for the game), but not without consequence. He turned the ball over seven times with Paul on him, including a pair of thefts by the six-time steals champ himself. What Paul lacked in height—and, in turn, ability to contest Durant's shots—he more than made up for in foot speed to keep the newly minted MVP out of the lane and encourage him to launch jumpers.
The extra defenders that LA sent were vital to this effort, but none of it would've been possible without Paul's willingness to take on yet another challenge to do whatever his team needed of him in order to win.
"I like defense better than offense," Paul said after the win (via Adande).
Not that he was at all shabby on the offensive end. Paul finished with 23 points, 10 assists and just one turnover to go along with his five boards and four steals.
But it was Paul's defensive effort that allowed the Clippers to thrive on both ends in the fourth quarter of Game 4. By taking one for the team against Durant, Paul paved the way for LA's super-small lineup—with Griffin at center, Danny Granger at power forward and Collison and Crawford on the wings—to hold the fort on defense while lighting up OKC for 38 points on 63.6 percent shooting from the field (and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line) at the other end.
Chances are, the Thunder will be better prepared to handle this serendipitous strategy when they see it next. That just means the Clippers will have to find some other way for Paul to impact the proceedings, be it setting up his talented teammates, resuming his unusual scoring exploits or some other bit of wizardry Rivers has yet to devise.
The point being, however far the Clippers go, it'll be Paul who takes them there. More assistance from his compatriots, Griffin in particular, is always welcome, but Paul must be the one to lead them.
His past successes in road playoff games should come in handy as LA looks to turn the tide in OKC. Paul's explosion in Game 1 is plenty indicative of what he can do in the Thunder's building, but if his team's fate is to be decided on the road in Game 7, his gritty performance in Memphis in 2012 (19 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two steals) may be the more relevant laurel on which the Clips can rest.
Just because the Thunder have already lost to the Clippers in OKC in this series doesn't mean the slice of home-court advantage they recaptured with a 118-112 victory in Game 3 won't come in handy. It's no coincidence that teams with that edge have come out on top after 2-2 splits as often as they have in the past. Any squad would rather play on its own turf in front of its own raucous fans, sleep in its own beds and enjoy its own home cooking if given the option.
That cooking served OKC well during the regular season. The Thunder went 34-7 at the 'Peake in 2013-14, tied with the Clippers for the best home record in the West. OKC has already lost three times at home in this postseason, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the Thunder would rather play host than visitor.
More importantly, the Thunder can take comfort knowing that the best player in this series wears their colors. The reluctance on the part of both Rivers and Durant to credit Paul with disrupting KD after Game 4 points as much to the potentially fluky nature of LA's success therein as it does to how easily Scott Brooks might counter Rivers' last-ditch adjustment. As Adande noted of the Durant-Paul tete-a-tete:
Stars hate giving credit to defenders. And Durant was correct that most of his problems came from the double-team, not Paul. But the Thunder failed to exploit the matchup by either posting Durant deeper on Paul or getting the ball to Durant coming off a screen. Durant's last two baskets against Paul were both off screens.
The Thunder also got 10 fourth-quarter points from Russell Westbrook who kept blowing by Collison. Their biggest problems came when they fed Durant at the elbow against Paul, and the Clippers sent double-teams.
For Brooks, then, the remedies should be simple and straightforward. If the Clippers go small and try to defend Durant with CP3-centric double-teams again, the Thunder can counter in any number of ways: by getting the ball to Durant in deeper post position, where he can take greater advantage of his superior size and length individually or kick the ball out when the double comes; by setting Durant up while on the move and having him run Paul ragged in the process; and by encouraging Westbrook to punish Collison down low, where Russ has had so much success in this series.
Those tactical tweaks should help the Thunder cut down on the live-ball giveaways that fueled the Clippers' fourth-quarter resurgence and afforded LA a 52-32 advantage on points in the paint in Game 4. A cleaner possession here, a miscue corrected there, and we're talking about OKC looking to close out the Clips in five after hanging on at the Staples Center, rather than a series that's even-steven heading back to the Sooner State.
Whether Brooks has the coaching chops to make the obvious changes is another story entirely, but the ingredients are all there for the Thunder to take control. It's on them to throw the next punch and put this series in their back pocket.
The Clippers needed two extraordinary efforts from Chris Paul just to eke out a split through the first four games in this series. How many more miracles can LA realistically expect Paul to produce now that these two teams have felt each other out?
And if CP3's not going to do it, who is? Will it be Blake Griffin, who's been flustered by the length of Serge Ibaka, the strength of Kendrick Perkins, the savvy of Nick Collison and the seediness of Steven Adams? Will it be Jamal Crawford or Darren Collison, both of whom are ripe for exploitation at the defensive end?
Perhaps J.J. Redick, whose poor defense and even poorer shooting have rendered him borderline unplayable over the last two games, will catch fire from deep again. Maybe Matt Barnes will do the same. There's always the off chance DeAndre Jordan will take over like he did in the Clippers' last Game 5.
But these are all big ifs for the Clips—distinct possibilities, but none that would be mistaken for likelihoods.
The Thunder, on the other hand, would seem to have no worse than a 50-50 shot at winning this series if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to play as well as they have, on the whole, through the first four games. The more OKC can squeeze out of Ibaka, Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson, the better off it'll be, but the productivity of the Thunder's supporting cast is by no means a make-or-break proposition for this squad.
In any case, most of the important advantages in this series (i.e. matchup, home court, etc.) favor OKC. The Clips have had to scratch, claw and luck their way into two wins, while the Thunder have come by theirs as the results of doing what they normally do.
And if there's any silver lining to the dark cloud of OKC's fourth-quarter collapse in Game 4, it's that the Thunder now have that much more motivation, that much more of a wake-up call, to bring their best to the table from here on out.
Prediction: Thunder in seven
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