With a 104-98 win in Game 6 of their 2nd round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in four years. Before we look ahead to the San Antonio Spurs, here are 5 thoughts from the electrifying series that was.
1. Point Guard Supremacy
If there was a match-up that was going to determine how this series would play out, it was definitely this one. Chris Paul is widely considered to be the best point guard in the league, while Russell Westbrook is its most polarizing. One is a maestro, leading a meticulous concerto of dunks, alley-oops, and 3-point shots, while the other is the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil incarnate. The match-up basically came down to this: Would Paul be able to control Westbrook’s game. Defending Chris Paul means defending everyone on the floor. Yes, you have to stay in front of him. But it’s when the opponent strays away from one of the other players on the Clippers that Paul does his most damage.
On the flip side, defending Westbrook is a completely different story. Due to the chaos he causes, a defender never knows how they are going to defend him. The best approach is to lay off of him, but even that has proven to be difficult as Westbrook will look for any opportunity to run in transition and is usually the quickest man on the floor. Add to that the fact that he’s had a couple games of double digit assists while scoring at least 20 points in the playoffs, and you are looking at a monster.
The numbers in the series basically cancel each other out:
- Westbrook – 27.8 points / 6.0 rebounds / 8.8 assists / 1.8 steals on 49/35/88 shooting splits
- Paul – 22.5 points / 3.7 rebounds / 12.0 assists / 2.5 steals on 51/46/75 shooting splits
While Paul assisted more and scored more efficiently, Westbrook scored more and grabbed more boards (over 2 offensive boards per game). The difference between the two floor general lied in the chaos they caused. More, specifically, in the free throw attempted. While Paul mainly settled for jump shots, Westbrook consistently challenged the defense by getting into the paint and looking for his own shot. Some may say that’s the staple of a scoring wing, not a prime time point guard. But with the way the rules favor dribble penetration, it may be time to stop looking at point guards as just facilitator and more as attackers. While I think Paul is still the best pure point guard in the game, Westbrook did a lot in this series in changing the way people think of the point guard position.
2. The Emergence of Steven Adams
When the Thunder made Adams the 12th pick in last season’s draft, many people envisioned a season of trips on I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Adams was expected to be a project that would not pay dividends until, at the earliest, next season. But, as they say, that is why they play the game. Adams started the season as the Thunder’s back-up center and never wavered. He even started 20 games when Kendrick Perkins went out with a groin injury in the 2nd half of the season.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, in his infinite quest for veteran intangibles, barely played Adams in the first 5 games of the postseason. After averaging 14.8 minutes per game in the regular season, Adams was only notching 4 minutes a night (and 1 DNP-CD) against, of all teams, the Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol-led Memphis Grizzlies, in those first 5 games. With their backs against the wall and trailing 3-2 in their first round series, Brooks relented against his default settings, and played the rookie significant minutes (22.5/game) in the next two games (both wins).
A look at Adams’ numbers don’t explain his impact. Since Game 5 of the first round, Adams has averaged 21.8 minutes, 5 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. But it’s his combination of physicality and athleticism that has the most effect on the game. Usually, teams can do a lot of their damage in the paint when the starting big men are on the bench. In fact, James Harden made a living off of this when he played for the Thunder. Harden would come into the game and immediately begin attacking the other team’s back-up big. With Adams in the game, though, the other team has difficulty in scoring inside.
In the Clippers series, Adams was tasked with guarding all of the LA’s big men (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Glen Davis). Surprisingly, Adams probably struggled the most with Davis. Griffin wanted no part of backing down Adams in the post and settled for mid-range jumpers. And Jordan struggles with anything not resembling a lob pass. It’s almost as if Adams is a combination of Serge Ibaka and Perkins. Someone with the athleticism of Ibaka, but with the brute strength of Perkins. The only thing missing is the experience, which Adams is gathering in heaps this postseason.
They say great teams win the close games. But, damn, does every game have to be an ESPN Instant Classic? After the “cardiology office visit inducing” series that was the Memphis series, my health didn’t need this series, especially games 4-6. But, that the Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals speaks to the resiliency of this team.
There’s a comfort level that’s achieved when the core of a team has been together for a number of seasons. That’s what you see with the Thunder in late game situations. Everybody knows their roles and plays them to a T. Now, why they can’t do that in the first 45 minutes of a game? I have no idea. Being that they are still a young team, they probably play the game in a fashion similar to the thought process high school/college students have towards homework. When a student is given an assignment with a due date two weeks from then, 75% of those students will wait until the night before to start working on their assignment. That’s the Thunder in a nut shell right there.
4. Defense definitely wins playoff series (and championships too)
During the regular season, the Clippers averaged a league high 107.9 points per game. They upped the ante during the Golden State series, increasing their average by 3 points to 110.9 points per game. For the Thunder series, the Clippers averaged a paltry 106.3 points per game. Seriously though, that 1.5 point drop (and 4.6 point drop from the Warriors series) may have been the difference between the Thunder winning Games 5 and 6.
The Thunder did a great job defending Griffin and Jordan on the inside in the series. After posting up 12.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game in the Warriors series, the Thunder limited Jordan to 6.7 points and 9.5 rebounds. Griffin’s points and rebounds went up slightly in the Thunder series, but his efficiency went down.
With the inside locked down, the only other options for the Clippers were Paul’s penetrations and their plethora of 3-point shooters. The Thunder did a great job of going under the screens and negating the driving lanes for Paul. With Paul not getting into the lane as much, the perimeter defenders were able to stay on the shooters for an extra bit longer. The trio of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, and JJ Redick averaged 0.6 less 3-point FGs made in the Thunder series, and Crawford saw his 3-point percentage drop 8.4 percentage points from the Warriors series. All these factors combined made it difficult for the Clippers to do what they did best; which was to score at will.
5. Coming through in the clutch
Many people will look at this postseason run and wonder whether Westbrook had a better postseason than Durant. The numbers suggest this is a very distinct possibility. All things being equal in the Memphis series (when Durant played bad, so did Westbrook, and visa versa), Westbrook has surprisingly been more efficient in the Clippers’ series. But in terms of making the necessary MVP-like plays in the final 3 minutes of games, Durant is still the man. In Games 4-6, in the final 3 minutes of play, Durant scored 16 points on 4-7 shooting (1-1 from long range), 7-8 FT, and only had 1 turnover. Conversly, Westbrook scored 11 points on 2-7 shooting and 7-7 from the line.
The mark of an MVP is not necessarily their stats throughout the game, but how they pull through in the clutch. Durant has proven time and time again that no matter how the first 40 minutes of the game play out, he’s usually there in the final few minutes when the team needs him the most.