OKLAHOMA CITY – Entering their 11th game of the season, the Clippers are already in historic territory for the franchise.
Their 8-2 record matches the 2005-06 Clippers for the best start in team history and they have opened the season 3-0 on the road for just the second time ever (1996-97).
Wednesday night, in the midst of a six-game winning streak and the second game of a four-game swing through four states and two time zones, the Clippers will be presented another stern test, this time against the Oklahoma City Thunder (8-3).
The defending Western Conference champions have won two in a row and seven of their last eight, and while they may still be in the stage of adjusting to life without reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro is quick to point out they still have plenty of firepower.
“The bottom line is: it starts and ends with Kevin [Durant] and Russell [Westbrook]” Del Negro said. “[Serge] Ibaka’s improved a lot, and [Kendrick] Perkins rebounding, and [Nick] Collison and they have [Eric] Maynor back, so they have their nucleus back and they’ve had success with those guys at a high level. We’ve got to be locked into Kevin and locked into Russell, but not let the other guys hurt as well.”
Clippers small forward Caron Butler, who would draw the first crack at guarding Durant, is listed as a game-time decision after leaving Monday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs with a strained right shoulder.
LAST TIME OUT
Clippers 92, Spurs 87: The Clippers rallied from a 10-point first-quarter deficit thanks to a 19-2 run before halftime and a few key moments from Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf and Eric Bledsoe off the bench. The trio of reserves accounted for nine of the Clippers’ 17 offensive rebounds Monday night and combined for 27 points. Chris Paul, who had 19 points and eight assists, stifled a San Antonio comeback attempt with his only basket of the fourth quarter, a difficult turnaround in the lane that gave L.A. a four-point lead with 24.3 seconds to go.
“I thought last night we did a good job when San Antonio made a run, we kind of kept our composure, kept our poise and executed down the stretch,” Del Negro said. “It wasn’t perfect, but guys made enough plays defensively and a couple of guys made some plays offensively and we weathered the storm and got a big win.”
Thunder 119, Warriors 109: Kevin Durant’s first career triple-double paced the host Thunder Monday in their second straight win and second game topping 110 points. Durant finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists and after Kevin Martin made a 3-pointer with 11:37 to go Oklahoma City nabbed a 22-point lead. But Golden State cut it to seven in less than six minutes, thanks to a 23-8 run capped by a Stephen Curry 3-pointer that led to a Thunder timeout. Durant and Serge Ibaka closed the door from there scoring seven of the next 12 points for OKC. Curry scored a team-high 22 points for the Warriors, while Russell Westbrook had 30 to lead all scorers.
Matt Barnes vs. Kevin Durant. With Butler is listed as a game-time decision there’s a chance Barnes may start the game on the wiry, high-scoring superstar. But even if Butler is a go, the 6-foot-7 Barnes will definitely get his share of time stalking Durant.
Barnes was slated with guarding LeBron James for stretches when the Clippers played the Heat last week and was charged with chasing Manu Ginobili for much Monday’s win after Butler went down. So far this year, Durant is seemingly doing his best impression of Olympic teammate James. He’s scoring 24.9 points per game and averaging a career-high 10.5 rebounds though 11 games.
According to Griffin, attempting to slow down Durant and the hyper-aggressive Westbrook means the Clippers must tighten up their defensive rotations.
“[The Thunder] obviously have one of the best scorers in the game and also a great point guard,” Griffin said. “We have to do a good job as a team with our rotations and not get lazy at all.”
TWO THINGS TO WATCH
The new-look Thunder. With all five starters returning it is hard to say Oklahoma City is that much different than they were last season. But shuffling the primary backcourt reserve from a play-making future All-Star in James Harden to a high-scoring former All-Star snub in Kevin Martin does slightly change the team’s complexion.
“Harden was more of an angle pick-and-roll guy, Martin’s more of an isolation guy,” Del Negro said. “But you know Kevin can score the ball at high clips, he creates a lot of contact, gets to the free throw line, and he’s playing very well.
“We’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that he’s coming in to score the ball and do a good job as a team to try and make him take as difficult a shot as possible.”
Martin, who is averaging 17.6 points per game, and Jamal Crawford, who leads the Clippers and is 14th in the league at 19.7 points per game, are the two highest-scoring bench players in the league.
Protecting the ball. The Clippers and the Thunder are inclined to use their athleticism on the break. They each rank in the top three in the NBA in fast-break points with L.A. at 18.1 per game (2nd) and OKC at 17.4 (3rd). The Clippers’ transition game is fueled by forcing turnovers. They are tied with Memphis as the league’s best in converting turnovers into points (21.3 points per game) and lead the league in steals (9.9).
When Memphis defeated the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena last week in a game that was seemingly as much bloodlust as basketball, it was predicated on forcing 15 miscues that led to 16 points.
But the Clippers are equally aware of the damage Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and others can cause on the break. “Our transition defense is something that has to be more consistent,” Del Negro said. “We go in spurts in a lot of areas and we need to be consistent [defensively] for longer periods.”
The Clippers won three out of four games last season against the Thunder, including a two-point victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena in April when Paul made a driving layup in the final seconds… Westbrook has a lower scoring average against the Clippers than against any other team In 15-career games he has averaged 14.9 points and is shooting just 33.8% from the field…. The Thunder have compiled 62 assists in their last two games. The two-game total is an Oklahoma City-era record for the franchise… Westbrook and Paul are two of only five players in the last decade to have averaged 19 or more points, six or more assists and four or more rebounds over the first four years of their careers… Ibaka leads the leagues in blocked shots (3.45), while DeAndre Jordan leads the league in field goal percentage (68.1%, 47-of-69)… Paul played the better part of his first two NBA seasons in Oklahoma City after the Hornets franchise was forced to temporarily relocate from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.