Why Blake Griffin and Chris Paul Can't Beat the Thunder on Their Own

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2014

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On a night in which the Washington Wizards scored just 63 points, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers would like you to know that offense still exists in the NBA. Head coach Scott Brooks' club just had a little more of it.

And it came at the right time, too. After Russell Westbrook's three-pointer put the Thunder up by four, Kevin Durant hit a turnaround jumper heard all around the Twitter-verse.

As you might have gathered, Durant's shot was pretty nifty.

So were the Thunder.

But we already knew the Thunder were good. We knew they were capable of putting up ridiculous numbers. It's what has gotten them this far, and it may be what gets them a round still further. That's ultimately up to the Clippers.

Los Angeles gave it a good shot on Friday night. When you score 112 points, you're typically putting yourself in pretty good position to win a game. But for the second time in a row, the Clippers have come up short after blowing the Thunder out in Game 1.

Something isn't working.

And it's not Blake Griffin or Chris Paul's fault. They were fantastic in Game 3. Griffin had 34 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Paul's production was rare. He tallied 21 points, 16 assists and zero turnovers.

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Sure, you could ask for more out of those guys if you're into asking ridiculous things of players who are already giving it there all. You could expect them to combine for 70. You could expect the team collectively to go off for 122 points like they did in Game 1.

But realistically, there are far more obvious culprits at hand.

The first is defense. The Clippers haven't been the more physical team in the last two games. They've given the Thunder all the space they need to operate. They've let Russell Westbrook get to his preferred spots, giving him room to pull up from virtually anywhere.

They've refused to send help against Kevin Durant, allowing him to score a combined 68 points in the last two games.

This isn't a matter of matchups. There's no one in the league who can stop Durant one-on-one, least of all Matt Barnes or Jared Dudley. This is a matter of all five guys being frenetic and forceful on the defensive end, having more energy, displaying more effort. 

Good as the Clippers have been offensively all season long, they're going to have to dig deep for something else now. They may have finally encountered a team they can't simply outscore. 

Yes, it happened in Game 1. But who wants to put money on that kind of outburst happening three more times?

Give the Thunder credit. They aren't winning because they're a more talented team. They certainly aren't winning because of superior depth. They've out-rebounded the Clippers by a wide margin in three-straight games. In itself, that's probably not the reason for the 2-1 series lead. Instead, it's a symptom.

It's a symptom of the fact that the Thunder are doing the little things, playing harder. It's also exactly what Los Angeles should be emulating. 

You can't blame head coach Doc Rivers for the lack of defensive effort. If he can't get more out of his guys, then no one can. 

So let's theorize.

Perhaps this is merely a matter of personnel. J.J. Redick has never been known as much of a two-way player. Jamal Crawford has a long history of being a defensive liability. Blake Griffin is a strong enough defender in theory, but he gave Serge Ibaka all the open jumpers he wanted on Friday—and Ibaka cashed in on 9-of-10 field-goal attempts.

While Chris Paul is a crafty defender who's capable of racking up steals and playing the passing lane, maybe he's just physically outmatched by the bigger, longer Westbrook.

And while DeAndre Jordan drew potential Defensive Player of the Year attention on account of his eye-popping numbers, there are still things he doesn't do very well when it comes to communicating on the defensive end and rotating effectively.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 9: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers greet each other before Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 9, 2014
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Have the Clippers reached their defensive limit?

Maybe they're suffering from the psychological toll taken by the Donald Sterling scandal. It certainly seemed to be a culprit in Game 4 of the first round. With ongoing talk concerning whether Shelly Sterling will be able to keep the team, the story isn't exactly dead yet.

Mentally strong as these players are, who could blame them for being a little distracted, playing with a little less intensity than the other guys?

Even if we bracket aside the off-court distractions, there's a possibility that the emotional roller coaster that is the playoffs has simply gotten the better of these Clippers. That was Rivers' explanation after Game 2 according to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi:

The playoffs are a single-possession game. Every single possession, you have to have great focus and you have to be locked in. Today we were not. I thought it was because of all the clutter today. We were upset at the officials, we were upset at everything, instead of turning our anger toward the opponent and focus. Tonight we just didn't have it, but I've got to give them credit. I don't know if we didn't have it or they took it from us. I thought they were very good tonight. They were physical, they moved the ball, so give them a lot of credit.

Whatever the explanation, the bottom line is less debatable. The Clippers have to defend better. They have to make the Thunder feel them. They have to stand their ground, knocking OKC's shooters off their spots.

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And they have to keep the Thunder out of the paint. ESPN Stats & Information highlights L.A.'s glaring difficulty on the interior:

[Durant] was successful close to the basket on Friday, scoring 20 points from 10 feet and in, breaking his previous playoff high of 18 such points. He had only scored 12 such points in the first two games of the series. Durant wasn’t the only player who was successful close to the basket. The Thunder scored a postseason high 52 points in the paint, outscoring the Clippers in the paint for the second straight game. 

Adjustments alone won't make the difference. Nor will a too-little, too-late philosophical commitment to the defensive end. The time has come for something that only heart and sheer determination can provide. 

After two blowouts decided Games 1 and 2, Friday night finally gave us the close contest that seemed all but inevitable. A few big defensive plays could have made the difference. More importantly, so could a few quiet defensive plays—the kinds that may not result in a block or a steal, the kinds that lead to missed jumpers and bad shots.

Conversely, a few extra made shots would have helped, too.

Redick was just 1-of-6 from the field. And while Crawford dropped 20 points, he was just 6-of-18 in the process. As a team, the Clippers made just 45.2 percent of their buckets compared to the 55.7-percent pace for the Thunder.

The supporting cast has to step up. Griffin and Paul have been brilliant, but they need help. Redick could become something of an X-factor. He's had a fine postseason up until this point, and there's no reason to believe he can't bounce back from an off shooting night.

But all the shooting in the world may not matter without slowing down Durant and Westbrook. That has to be priority No. 1 going forward, not just for their defensive assignments, but for everyone on the floor. More than any obstacle the Clippers have overcome so far, this one will take a team.