The Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Los Angeles Clippers on a last-second play at home, and the natural temptation for observers is to question the hosts’ late-game execution.
Chris Paul’s game-winning layup (and uncalled travel) was indeed indicative of one of Oklahoma City’s most glaring flaws tonight: its inability to protect the basket, despite the presence of a robust defensive frontline.
There were other in-game duels just as compelling. Each highlighted a potential Thunder weakness, or a potential key to the team’s playoff fortunes.
Paul vs. Other Thunder Defenders: On the Clippers’ second-quarter possession, Scott Brooks switched Thabo Sefalosha onto Chris Paul, who couldn’t get a good shot over Sefalosha’s reach. Given Russell Westbrook’s size and athleticism that allows him to match up with many two-guards, could this sort of cross-matching work in a playoff game, if only for a game-deciding play or two?
Tonight, the question became especially pressing in light of James Harden’s inability to contain Paul on the perimeter. Brooks and his staff will study the last minute of tonight’s game carefully to learn what minor adjustments could have made the difference.
Ibaka vs. Griffin (and YouTube): Serge Ibaka once again showed that he is close to the ideal defender for Blake Griffin. His unrefined defensive technique is a fine foil for Griffin’s equally raw post game. Ibaka yielded only one post-up basket to Griffin through three quarters, repeatedly frustrating the phenom in the battle for low-block real estate.
Ibaka also picked up some of Kendrick Perkins’ slack by becoming Griffin’s latest YouTube victim. This play will lead all of the highlight shows, but does not represent either Griffin’s or Ibaka’s impact on the game.
Another bizarre trend continued at the power forward spot: Griffin remains the only All-Star who can honestly say he has more offensive success against Nick Collison than Ibaka. Griffin’s physical power overwhelms Collison in a way that no other opponent can manage.
Durant vs. Small & Pesky: The Clippers raised a different matchup question tonight by using Nick Young against Kevin Durant. Many teams have tried to check Durant with a shorter, peskier defender, and usually KD’s reach and quick release neutralize the smaller opponent’s quickness.
Young did a good job of crowding Durant and bothering his shot. Durant had an off night, missing several open jump shots that are normally automatic and finishing 7-21 from the field.
Surveying the Thunder’s potential first-round playoff opponents, there are several defenders who could have a similar effect on Durant: Dallas’ Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd(who did the same thing in last year’s playoffs), Memphis’ Tony Allen (ditto), Denver’s Arron Afflalo.
The Thunder need to figure out a way to counter this tactic, because everyone watching tonight’s game saw how dysfunctional the Thunder offense becomes when Durant struggles.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.