Western Conference Semifinals: 2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 3) Los Angeles Clippers
Season Series: Tied 2-2
How, as Spurs fans, are we to pick between these two teams? It's like picking between Jason and Freddy, except the bad guys are less endearing and both franchises are filled with way worse actors. On one hand you have a lumbering, mummy-like figure, chasing his victims at 0.2 miles-per-hour. And on the other hand you have a twisted, creepy old guy, who preys on young people and haunts their dreams after he's gone. And Kendrick Perkins and Donald Sterling might not even be the scariest of the bunch.
Yeah, this is tricky.
What the Clippers have going for them, besides the whole "America's Team," nonsense fostered by their senile old coot of an owner, is that under Doc Rivers' tutelage DeAndre Jordan has finally developed to the point where you don't have to take him off the floor in crunch time or even when the opponent goes small. Jordan is a mainstay now, and they're going to ride or die with him. The success that the Grizzlies had against the Thunder with bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph showed that it's better to stay traditional against OKC as much as possible, regardless of how they line up.
If y'all want to have Kevin Durant sweating and grinding away against some giant in the post, be our guests, the Grizzlies said. We'll be more than happy to guard the quickness-impaired Caron Butler with our power forward.
When the lineups stay traditional, Blake Griffin is plenty versatile enough to stay with Serge Ibaka out on the perimeter, allowing Jordan to stay in the paint and challenge Durant's and Russell Westbrook's rim runs, without having to worry about the oafish Kendrick Perkins.
The Thunder also don't defend the three particularly well, at least not for extended stretches since playing that manic defense takes its toll on them. That should benefit guys like J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford. Chris Paul should also get plenty of good looks against the gambling Westbrook. The Thunder may want to go after Redick's defense by pairing Westbrook with Reggie Jackson, and I suspect in that case Rivers would follow suit by taking Redick off the floor and going to Darren Collison, to blunt the speed mismatch.
Oklahoma City definitely has pronounced advantages elsewhere, though. For one, nobody in the league guards Griffin as well as Ibaka seems to. Griffin was 4-for-20 in the post against him, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe. Griffin had his way down low against Golden State, bullying the undersized Warriors, but he'll have to be hot from mid-range for the Clips to have a chance.
Even more worrisome is the fact that the Clips don't really have anyone who can guard Durant. Barnes is far past his prime and is not as athletic or disciplined as Tony Allen. He's bound to go off the rails with the refs at any time. Danny Granger has good size off the bench, but doesn't have nearly the mobility to stay with Durant. KD's presence in itself hinders a lot of the three-guard lineups the Clips would prefer with Redick, Crawford and Paul.
There's also Paul's balky hamstring. It remains to be seen how much he'll have to guard Westbrook -- Barnes figures to draw that assignment at times, too -- but I just don't see how he'll be physically up to it. He'll use his smarts and veteran savvy to make up for some of the disparity, and he'll have Jordan at his back, which helps, but a compromised Paul will hurt them for sure. (On the bright side, the Thunder don't really have a Danny Green equivalent to throw at Paul since Thabo Sefolosha has been rendered borderline unplayable.)
The key to the series, as always, figures to be Westbrook. If he figures out that the Clippers have no one who can guard Durant, the Thunder should win in five or six games. If he tries to out-duel Paul and launch a thousand shots, the Clippers can outsmart them in fourth quarters. They do have the coaching advantage with Doc Rivers, to be sure.
I'll take the Thunder in six, though I certainly wouldn't mind being wrong. I just can't see Griffin being able to match Durant's numbers enough to keep the Clips in there -- not with Ibaka all over him.
Fun Fact: I'll be really disappointed if Barnes and Westbrook don't throw down at some point. Also, Adams provoking Griffin is a lock, right?