With the Western Conference Semifinals squared away at two games apiece, the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers meet in a pivotal Game Five at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Through four games these teams have proven to be evenly matched, with each combatant earning a victory on their opponent’s floor. This could prove particularly valuable to the Clippers (57-25), who dismantled the Thunder in Game One to the tune of 122-105. In that matchup, Los Angeles jumped out to an early 39-24 lead after the first quarter, and proceeded to never look back; the visitors shot a healthy 54.9% from the field, including 15-of-29 from three (51.7%), led by Chris Paul’s 32 points and 10 assists.
However, the following two meetings would prove to be much closer, as Doc Rivers saw his charges fall short in both Games Two (112-101) and Three (118-112). Game Two saw a desperate performance from the higher seeded Thunder, as Los Angeles found it much tougher to get their offense going; After having their way with OKC two days prior, the Clippers shot 44.6% from the field, including 9-of-27 from beyond the arc (33.3%), and committed 14 turnovers. Paul, who was on fire in Game One, was limited to 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the floor (46.2%), including 2-of-5 from three (40.0%), a far departure to the blistering 8-of-9 (88.9%) he netted beforehand. Likewise, Blake Griffin had a hard night in the same state in which he played in his collegiate ball, scoring a postseason-low 15 points on a poor 5-of-13 shooting (38.5%). Griffin uncharacteristically settled for far too many jumpers; with more than half of his attempts extending from 16-feet or further. Granted, he has improved his offensive repertoire immensely, but anyone familiar with his play can tell you that that is not where he’s going to make his living.
With the venue shifting to STAPLES Center, it looked as if the hosts were playing under more pressure, even though they happened to be the lower seed. Leading 90-86 after three quarters, Los Angeles was outscored 32-22 in the final stanza largely on the heroics of the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combined for 59 points. However, that’s not to say that Rivers didn’t receive some major efforts from his players; Griffin bounced back from Game Two with a monster 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting (59.1%), along with 8 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal, while Paul posted totals of 21 points, 16 assists, and 3 steals of his own. With that said, their combined effort just wasn’t enough, as the rest of the Clippers largely came up short; outside of Griffin and Paul, the rest of Rivers’ roster combined to shoot just a dismal 21-of-55 (38.2%). Had it not been for the 21-of-25 (84.0%) that the team had shot from the charity stripe, this contest wouldn’t have been nearly as close as the score would indicate.
Game One’s triumphant drubbing of the Thunder must have felt like a lifetime ago after the past two games, for coming into Game Four Los Angeles faced the daunting possibility of falling behind in a 3-1 hole. And for the majority of Sunday’s 101-99 victory it looked like they would be doing precisely that. In cold-blooded fashion, Oklahoma City established a 22-point lead after the first quarter, but a furious late-game rally in which the Clippers outscored the visitors 38-24 in the fourth period saved their collective postseason hopes for at least a little while longer. Throughout the majority of the game, Rivers and Co. could not throw the ball into the ocean, shooting a poor 41.9% from the field, including a mere 3-of-21 from downtown (14.3%), but received some late-game heroics from their backcourt. Backup point guard Darren Collison proved his worth by scoring 12 of his 18 points in the final period, while the aforementioned Paul totaled 23 points, 5 rebounds, 10 assists, and 4 steals. Unlikely as it may sound, it was his defense on one Kevin Durant that drew the headlines, forcing the MVP into three late turnovers.
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to walk away from this series without thinking that Oklahoma City (59-23) isn’t clearly the better team. If not for a cringe-worthy 22-point collapse in Game Four, the Thunder would be facing the prospects of eliminating their opponent tonight. Head Coach Scott Brooks has done a pretty solid job of making adjustments after the debacle that was Game One, particularly when it cam to defending the Clippers (namely Griffin) in the paint. Speaking of the opening salvo of this series, the West’s Second Seed had the fatigued look of a team that just escaped a grueling seven-game epic against Memphis. Then again, Los Angeles ran the same gauntlet against Golden State and looked much more energized than one would expect. As a team, the hosts shot 45.9% from the field, but outside of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (18-of-33) were just 21-of-52 (40.4%) overall. On the night, the Thunder had just 17 assists opposed to 17 turnovers, underlining their inability to move the ball and get other players involved.
After being embarrassed on national television, it came as no surprise that Oklahoma City would come back in Game Two with a much more concerted effort, particularly given Durant received his MVP award earlier in the day. The four-time scoring champ nearly posted a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists, while the aforementioned Westbrook did accomplish that feat, totaling 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. Brilliance from the dynamic duo aside, the difference in this game came from the supporting cast, who looked much livelier than they did in Game One.
The trio of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha accounted for 36 points on 15-of-26 shooting from the field (57.8%), with the former pair doing a tremendous job of relegating Griffin outside of the painted area. Ibaka in particular was outstanding in defense, limiting Griffin to just 3-of-11 shooting for just 7 points, and a scant 2 points in transition when he watched up with him.
With the series moving westward to the City of Angels, Brooks saw his charges take it to the hometown Clippers, and if it wasn’t for a monumental choke job, would own a decisive advantage in this series. In Game Three, Oklahoma City scorched the hosts on 55.7% shooting from the field, led once again by Durant and Westbrook, who combined for 59 points. The MVP was good for 36 points on 14-of-24 shooting (58.3%), along with 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and a block, while his running mate nearly registered another triple-double, notching 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), 8 rebounds, and 13 assists. As was the case in Game Two, the supporting cast played a large role in the outcome of this contest; Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, and the aforementioned Ibaka accounted for 48 points on a stellar 18-of-28 shooting (64.3%). The physicality that Brooks demanded in the paint on defense extended to the offensive end, as the Thunder logged 52 points in the paint, the most they had registered in the Playoffs since Game One of the 2012 NBA Finals.
When it’s all said and done, Game Four could be looked at as a turning point in this series for a multitude of reasons. Obviously for the Clippers, rallying back from a 22-point deficit sparks a wealth of optimism, but for the Thunder it remains a missed opportunity of immense proportions. After the first quarter, Oklahoma City led 32-15 after the first quarter, and throughout the remainder of the contest largely held the hosts at bay. Durant was again spectacular, dropping 40 points on 12-of-24 shooting (50.0%), netting 15 of his 18 free-throws (83.3%) in the process. However, perhaps it was a case of Brooks relying a little too much on his superstar; Durant was just 1-of-7 from beyond the arc (14.3%) and committed 8 turnovers, three of which came late in the fourth quarter. Even with the significantly smaller Chris Paul manning up on him, Durant seemed to struggle as Los Angeles aggressively brought late double-teams in an effort to get the ball out of his hands. This turned out to be a smart play on the Clippers’ behalf, for outside of Westbrook, the rest of the Thunder scored just 32 points on 11-of-29 shooting (37.9%).
Oracle Sports Predicted Outcome: Oklahoma City 109, Los Angeles 104