The Los Angeles Clippers’ second season started with a loss to the Warriors, increased in attention with an incredible audio tape featuring team owner Donald Sterling and wound down with a hallway shouting match following a thrilling Game 7 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
On Monday, the Warriors are ancient history.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder are fresh off their own seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Had Zach Randolph not lost his mind for a moment and thrown a punch, perhaps the Thunder would not have survived the opening round. However, the Thunder made it through.
Both the Clippers and the Thunder still have a great deal to prove before reaching the conference finals, as neither was dominant in the first round of the playoffs. However, both teams overcame unforeseen adversity and seemed to bond over off-court distractions.
After the Sterling mess and the commissioner’s subsequent ban, the shouting match outside the locker rooms following Game 7 on Saturday was a minor footnote in the Clippers’ chaotic postseason. After overcoming the Warriors and the week that was, emotionally, the Clippers may have already jumped the highest hurdle. Whether the emotion off the court contines forward into the second round remains to be seen.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, newspaper headlines stirred the pot and lit a flame under the team. A local newspaper aimed a headline that read “Mr. Unreliable” at Kevin Durant, and the national fallout put an added spotlight on the player, and Durant did not disappoint.
Durant averaged 34.5 points and 9.0 rebounds over the final two games of the first round series—both wins for the Thunder. On the court, Durant and his teammates appeared to gain greater focus following the bad press.
Marc Stein of ESPN.com reported that the Durant was expected to be presented the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award on Tuesday. Word of advice to the Oklahoma newspaper that flubbed the headline last time, try "Mr. Reliable."
The Thunder may be most identifiable by Durant’s no. 35 jersey, but former UCLA Bruin Russell Westbrook, arguably the most explosive player in the NBA, plays an important role for the Thunder. Westbrook averaged 25.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game in the opening round. The only valid criticism one could make would be to circle his 4.9 turnovers per game against the Grizzlies. That number is far too high for a point guard—or any other position, really.
For those counting lines to figure out who the Thunder’s leading actor is, Westbrook attempted 165 shots in the first round, which was only one short of Durant's 166 field goal attempts. Adding in free throw attempts, Durant takes the edge. The forward attempted 60 foul shots against Memphis, which were 10 more than the Thunder’s aggressive point guard.
Durant may be the leading actor, but Westbrook’s role is equally important to the success of the Thunder at this point in the season. In Game 7 against the Grizzlies, Westbrook notched an impressive 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds. Yes, that is a triple-double in Game 7.
For the Clippers, Chris Paul’s hamstring limited the veteran point guard offensively against the Warriors. Paul averaged 17.4 points and 9.0 assists per game in the opening round, and those numbers were roughly a couple points and a couple assists shy of his regular season marks.
More troubling than the slight dip in his statistics, Paul’s movement and mannerisms on the court have been concerning. Paul has started every game in the playoffs, and he will start Game 1 in Oklahoma City. Only a fool would question Paul's heart and will at this point.
Guarding Westbrook would be a serious challenge for any fully healthy point guard, and Paul's ability to slow down Westbrook and match the former Bruin’s production are points of interest in this series.
Another point of interest is Blake Griffin. With Durant accepting due praise as the top performer in the NBA this season, Griffin has the ability to steal the spotlight from the NBA’s MVP. Griffin’s level of production on this stage can elevate the Clippers’ former no. 1 overall pick into a new category of elite player.
For the Clippers to be successful, Griffin, who is an Oklahoma City native, needs to consistently perform at a high level.
The Thunder will be the home team for the first two games, but the Clippers did manage a win in the hostile environment of the Chesapeake Energy Arena during the regular season. The Clippers and Thunder split the regular season series 2-2, and both teams managed a road win.
Tip off for Game 1 is 6:30 pm Pacific Time.