Even though the Western Conference's No. 1-seeded Golden State Warriors are tracking toward the best regular-season record in NBA history while the directly trailing San Antonio Spurs have posted a mind-numbing 12.9 net rating behind suffocating defense, neither is invincible.
This is fantastic news for both the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Warriors have dropped a pair of games since the All-Star break, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers when Damian Lillard exploded for 51 points, and somehow failing to show up against the lowly Los Angeles Lakers on March 6. The Spurs, meanwhile, have shown signs of vulnerability in recent outings, even falling to the Indiana Pacers one day after the Dubs' latest loss.
These two powerhouses will likely reassert their supremacy during the early rounds of the playoffs, but both the Thunder and Clippers should be considered serious challengers as they battle for the No. 3 seed.
An easy path no longer exists. The Clippers have been playing at the same level as the Thunder for a while now, even looking better on some nights. Barring unforeseen upsets in the opening rounds, the West's eventual representative will have to face two of the conference's four best teams before reaching the NBA Finals.
The Case for the Thunder
Playoff rotations shrink, the tempo slows down, defensive rebounding becomes more important, and teams are often forced to rely on go-to scorers. Having superstars helps immensely, and that works in the Thunder's favor.
Los Angeles boasts a triumvirate of notable names, but the Thunder have the two best players: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Unstoppable machines of utter destruction on the offensive end, they've carried OKC to immense success both this season and in previous ones.
My total points added metric (TPA, which is explained in full throughout this article) looks at how many more points a player would contribute to an average team than an average player, and both Thunder studs fare quite well. In fact, they join the Warriors' duo of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green as one of two pairings in which both players are in the overall top 10:
It's not just because of Durant and Westbrook, excellent as they've been in 2015-16. The offensive presence of Enes Kanter, the defensive prowess of Serge Ibaka and the flexibility of the many wing contributors have all aided OKC.
The Thunder have outscored opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions this season, giving them a mark topped by only—you guessed it—the Spurs and Warriors. The Clippers' net rating of 4.9 is impressive, but it sits behind the other three Western powers and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It's only because of the fourth-quarter collapses that the Thunder aren't the easy answer here. Recently, we've seen them blow a seemingly insurmountable lead to the Warriors, leading to Stephen Curry's unforgettable game-winner in overtime. We've also witnessed a failure to close out the Clippers just before a close contest turned into a rout late in the follow-up affair against Golden State.
The numbers in crunch-time scenarios just aren't pretty. According to B/R Insights, OKC is being outscored by 0.4 points during its typical clutch situations (the last five minutes of a game separated by no more than five points), the worst mark of any team sitting at .500 or better. It's forcing the fourth-worst turnovers per 100 crunch-time possessions and has demonstrated an inexplicable inability to get to the charity stripe.
Even the stars haven't been immune to struggles, which has led to unfortunate and incomplete analyses such as this:
Skip Bayless @RealSkipBayless
OKC's biggest problem Westbrook. He's the "PG." But leads NBA in 4th q turnovers. 3-22 on "clutch time" 3s. 2-18 4th/OT shots vs GSt, LAC.3/3/2016, 7:33:06 PM
Westbrook is shooting a team-worst 34.9 percent from the field in clutch situations, though his free-throw ability, rebounding and passing has helped mitigate the negative impact. Durant, who typically knocks down 50.7 percent of his shots, has a field-goal percentage of 46.9—the best among all Thunder who have taken at least 10 shots, per B/R Insights.
This is all ugly, and it's legitimately concerning. But if you believe the Thunder are still the biggest dark-horse threat in the West, it's because you recognize these numbers are coming in a small sample (130 minutes) and should improve as OKC finds itself in more tight situations with the clock ticking down.
The Case for the Clippers
First, clear your mind of any negative feelings you might have about the playoff version of Chris Paul. Despite his persisting inability to advance to the conference finals, most recently because of the Clippers' utter collapse against the Houston Rockets in 2015, the point guard has still been an astoundingly strong postseason player.
That's not an opinion. It's just a fact.
Throughout Paul's playoff career, he's averaged 20.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. His player efficiency rating is a gaudy 25.2, and his box plus/minus stands at 7.8. Just four players have ever suited up in at least 50 postseason outings while maintaining a PER and BPM above 25 and seven, respectively: Paul, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and LeBron James.
But as strong as Paul's play should be, the Clippers also have the luxury of working another star into their lineup. Since Blake Griffin went down on Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers, LAC has hit its stride, winning 24 of its 32 games heading into Wednesday night's marquee matchup with the Thunder.
Paul, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and the other members of the rotation have done a phenomenal job carrying this squad in the absence of the dominant power forward, which has pushed it firmly into the dark-horse conversation.
But the Clippers could still improve when Griffin is cleared to play.
According to NBA.com's databases, LAC's net rating is 0.2 points per 100 possessions better this season with the 26-year-old on the bench. But that's a bit misleading, since it factors in the ability of the rotation to coalesce since he first dropped out of action. Up until his quadriceps injury on Dec. 25, there was a sizable discrepancy between lineups with and without him:
"I don't care if he gets back the day before the playoffs. We're playing for a championship and there's no championship without Blake Griffin," Paul told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper in early March. "There's not one."
There could be a championship if the Clippers manage to continue playing like they have in recent weeks and incorporate Griffin seamlessly into the lineup. Just imagine the team that's outscored opponents by eight points per 100 possessions getting better with an All-Star-caliber player slotted back in.
Given how impressive Griffin's individual offense can look when he's in rhythm, as well as his ability to serve as a distributing hub for head coach Doc Rivers, that shouldn't be too difficult to picture.
Occam's razor-style, the Clippers can't be the choice. Their case requires a lot more to go right. Not only would they have to maintain their incredible play from the last few months against a tougher slate despite relying on a thin bench composed of makeshift pieces, but they'd need to incorporate Griffin back into the rotation without experiencing any momentum-slowing adjustments.
Even members of the LAC organization are justifiably skeptical of that process.
"Either he's going to come back and kill [it] and you all are going to be like, 'Oh, man, it's been amazing. How you come back and do that?' Or he's going to struggle and then you're going to be like, 'Oh, well...' So I don't know the answer to it," Paul told the Los Angeles Daily News' Robert Morales about what might happen when the five-time All-Star returns.
Rivers expressed similar sentiments: "You don't miss that many games, then come back and you have great rhythm. It just takes time, so that's why you want him back as soon as he can get back."
If Griffin returns well before the end of the regular season, this won't be as much of an issue. The Clippers will still need to make adjustments, but they'll have time to work through the inevitable downward turns. However, there's still no telling when he'll be back on the floor, especially because he must serve a four-game suspension when he's cleared to play in games.
The latest news from Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times would seem to indicate there's been a setback, as previous reports had him "very close" to finishing the rehab of his broken hand:
Ben Bolch @latbbolch
Blake Griffin still not cleared for contact.3/8/2016, 12:12:36 AM
The Thunder don't have similar worries.
Even if their woes in the clutch continue throughout the rest of the campaign, they're still one of the league's best teams. The close games in which they need big plays against a tough opponent have been few and far between, if only because OKC usually pulls ahead before the final few minutes.
In addition to the Thunder's superior net rating, Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System (SRS, which looks solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule) similarly indicates that OKC is the better team by a fairly substantial margin. That, combined with the star power of Durant and Westbrook, sets up nicely for the postseason.
And lest we forget, the Thunder have advanced through at least the first two rounds each of the last two times their aforementioned stars were fully healthy.
The Warriors and Spurs remain the rightful favorites in the tougher half of the NBA. The Clippers are a legitimate dark horse after improving so much during the season's latter portion.
But if anyone is to play spoiler during the playoffs, the Thunder remain the safest bet.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Tuesday.
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