[Editor's note: This was written on Wednesday, Jan 23rd, before the Spurs game against New Orleans. -jrw]
Only three teams in the entire league are above .700 are on top of the Western Conference: the Thunder, the Clippers and our beloved Spurs. Coming into Tuesday night's matchup, the Clippers and Thunder each had 32 wins, with OKC having only 9 losses to LA's 10. I was excited about seeing these two play each other, as it assured at least one of these teams losing their lead over us, and to see just how good these teams are against elite competition.
The Clippers were 19-4 at home, third best in the league only to the Spurs and Thunder (surprise!), and have a good record against the best teams out there, having defeated the Spurs twice and quality wins coming against the Grizzlies, Heat, Warriors, Nuggets, Bulls and Celtics. Their 17 win streak showcased their ability to run teams off of the floor with their aggressiveness on defense, which led to steals and the best fast break in the league, as DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin streak down the floor awaiting a lob from Chris Paul. Eric Bledsoe is frequently included in both sides of the equation, and is an x-factor for their hopes of getting far in the playoffs.
The Thunder have been doing well, as always. Even after losing James Harden, they have kept their winning ways. They are nearly on a better pace than last year, winning a blistering 79% of their games due mainly to Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and second best player in the league Kevin Durant, having career years, in addition to Kevin Martin filling in the 6th man role quite nicely, by averaging enough points on a good percentage even though he doesn't possess the same playmaking abilities as the Beard. The core of this team is ridiculously talented and younger than 25, which means the Spurs don't have much time before they're nearly impossible to beat.
The weaknesses for the Clippers seems to be an over-reliance on Chris Paul to run their offensive system, as their offense becomes a sort of isolation game for whoever has the ball in their hands, and lapses defensively. On the Thunder's side, turnovers and boneheadedness seem to their biggest challenges, but that did not hinder them this night against LA. They had 6 more turnovers than the Clippers, and allowed 19 points from them. They limited the fast break, as the Clippers only scored 8 points, but were defeated down low, with more than half of Clippers' points coming from the paint. Out of the Clippers' 35 field goals inside the 3 point arc, 26 of them were in the paint. Blake Griffin did his damage inside, accumulating 31 points and putting Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison in foul trouble. The Thunder had 9 more fouls than the Clippers and shot many fewer free throws, but their great shooting percentages and assist numbers allowed them to prevail in a hostile environment. They shot above 55% on 3 pointers and 52% overall, along with 86% from FT (compared to 71% on LA's side). Kevin Durant scored 32, Westbrook had 26. They also had a nice advantage on the assist side, nine over.
I was impressed with Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe, but everybody else needs Chris Paul to be successful. Blake did well himself, but got a lot of calls at home, while Bledsoe is crazily athletic and speedy, nearly matching Westbrook on pure athleticism and a threat to blow past you at any second. In the end they were not enough without their floor general,
Cliff Chris Paul, to lead the tempo and set up the offense. His superior playmaking ability and vision would have made a fun matchup against Russell Westbrook. But without him, they fell to the Thunder, putting their record at 32-11, one game below the Spurs and two and a half below the Thunder. The Spurs also have the league's longest winning streak at 5 (not 17, that's for sure), and hope to extend it Wednesday night against New Orleans. They've been a tough match, but the Spurs are on a roll, even without Manu. Timmy and Tony have been picking up the load, big time.
One last thought: it's a funny thing that nearly every elite team has an elite point guard: Clippers - Paul, Thunder - Westbrook, Spurs - Parker, Heat - James(making an exception, but you know it's true). There are great (and not so great) teams that have amazing point guards, such as the Cavs, Celtics, Trail Blazers, 76ers and maybe the Nets (if Deron gets back on track) and the Bulls (if Rose comes back healthy), and then teams right on the edge of greatness with good, maybe great, but not elite, point guards: the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Pacers (sorry George Hill!) and the Hawks . It seems that an elite playmaker is needed nowadays in order to go all the way to the championship. I hope Tony and Manu can be those playmakers.