NBA Playoffs 2014: Clippers vs. Thunder – What to Watch For


Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Playoffs: Clippers vs. Thunder – What to Watch For

Basketball fans were all treated to a historic first round of the NBA playoffs featuring an unprecedented five deciding Game 7’s. With Western Conference contenders like Houston, Golden State and Memphis eliminated in dramatic fashion, you would think the next round might lack the sexy matchup, wouldn’t you?

Except that the next round might be even more intriguing.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder both advanced on Saturday night, dispatching the Warriors and Grizzlies respectively. Both of their opponents were missing key players (the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut out with an injury and Memphis’ Zach Randolph was suspended) yet were still tested. So how will they fare against teams at full strength?

Here are some key points to Game 1, which is set for 9:30 P.M. (EST) on TNT.

Best 1-on-1 Matchup: Blake Griffin vs. Serge Ibaka

Call it a mini-rivalry, a mutual dislike or whatever you want – just make sure you watch this battle intently as it wages throughout the series. Griffin has been stellar this season, expanding his game (and shooting range) and surely garnering MVP consideration as a result. But Ibaka, a physical, intense defender, is one of the few forwards that can match Griffin’s considerable athleticism. Ibaka’s long limbs and constant prodding will likely keep Blake from finding his comfort zone; this will be a true test to see if Griffin has really taken his game to the next level. And, if nothing else, you can expect some tangles and skirmishes underneath the boards, as seen back in November:

Get out the popcorn, people…this one is gonna be entertaining.

Other Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook

While the shared physicality of the Ibaka-Griffin contest makes that interesting, Paul and Westbrook are worth watching because of their disparate styles of play. Arguably the two best point guards in the league, their differences could cancel each other out or lead to classic battle for the ages. Paul’s game is more traditional for a PG – of the pass-first variety – while Westbrook’s explosive scoring is the difference for OKC. While Paul’s game is more measured and calculated, part of what makes Westbrook so watchable is how erratic he can be, from shooting an off-balance, rushed three-pointer on one end to playing the passing lanes perfectly for a steal and fast break dunk. Paul’s steady defense and leadership sets the tone for the Clippers’ play. Meanwhile, Thunder fans are left to wonder if they’re getting the “good” Westbrook – engaged and somewhat in control – on a game-to-game basis. It can be maddening, frustrating but, in all honesty, immensely fun to watch.

Not-So-Hidden Storyline

The Donald Sterling story broke just over a week ago, potentially derailing the Clippers’ postseason hopes and casting a shadow over the NBA postseason. But, like almost everything in today’s short-attention-span world, it has mostly fallen out of the news cycle, with stories rehashing Sterling’s various past indiscretions and heinous business practices. And while the story was obviously a distraction for the Clips, it also provided something else this unproven team is looking for; an excuse. The Clippers are all in, acquiring Head Coach “Doc” Rivers and filling out the roster with experienced vets like Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger and “Big Baby” Davis. Anything short of a trip to the NBA Finals will be seen as a failure. That’s a lot of pressure for a team that, with the exception of Rivers and Davis, has had little playoff success. The Sterling story took the focus off a unit that was on the verge of being eliminated by a Warriors team without its best defensive player. Now that it isn’t as much of a factor, the Clippers need to prove this experiment is a success.