- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick before the start of this season, most of the league's attention focused on the Los Angeles Lakers.
It was an understandable reaction. Many viewed the Lakers and the Thunder as the class of the Western Conference and saw the trade as Oklahoma City possibly conceding the conference to the Lakers.
Truth be told, the trade may have actually benefited the Los Angeles Clippers as much as the Lakers. Anyone who didn't view the Clippers as legitimate championship contenders before this season has had to re-evaluate their position following their 8-2 start, which has seen the Clippers beat the San Antonio Spurs (twice), Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and the Lakers.
No one was as shocked by Oklahoma City's blockbuster trade as much as Chris Paul. He called Harden when the trade went down on Oct. 28 and texted back and forth with his former Team USA teammate. Paul had switched teams before last season and the two discussed the transition and expectations of playing for a new team and in a new city.
Paul seemingly has close relationships with half the players in the league and certainly anyone he has ever called a teammate, and the trade genuinely took him by surprise because Oklahoma City had built what Paul hopes the Clippers can build in Los Angeles. They not only had a talented team, but a deep one that was tight off the court as well.
The thought of taking a sledgehammer to a vital piece of it and rebuilding the bench seemed strange.
Not that Paul and the Clippers mind it. They play coy when talk of being a championship contender comes up, but there's no question this team views itself as a championship team.
"We fear nobody," Matt Barnes said recently. "Teams need to fear us because of our depth and talent. We can't be awed by anybody."
After beating the Thunder in their past two meetings, including their last game in Oklahoma City, the Clippers certainly don't fear the Thunder. They know they have matched up well with them on the court recently, winning three of their past four meetings. Now they're just hoping to matchup well with them when it comes to the playoffs this season.
Here are three things to look for in Wednesday’s game against the Thunder:
Bench production: As surprising as the Harden trade was, Martin, who replaced Harden as the Thunder's sixth man, has been more than a solid replacement. In fact, statistically, he has been better so far this season. Martin is third in bench scoring this season, averaging 17.6 points, more than the 16.9 points Harden averaged off Oklahoma City’s bench last season. The most prolific scorer off the bench this season, however, has been the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, who leads the NBA in bench scoring, averaging 19.7 points. Crawford also leads the NBA in 20-point games off the bench with six this season. The Clippers actually lead the NBA in bench scoring, averaging 42.2 points. They ranked 26th last season, averaging just 25.3 bench points.
Griffin's growth: You can forget the label of Blake Griffin being nothing more than a dunker this season. After working with shooting coach Bob Thate this offseason and every day during the season, he is finally developing the midrange game that had been missing from his repertoire. Griffin is averaging more than 20 points and 12 rebounds in his past three games, and that can be attributed to his his midrange jump shooting. Griffin is 10-for-21 (47.6 percent) from that range in his past three games after shooting just 9-for-30 from that distance in his first seven games.
Offensive DJ: Even more impressive that Griffin’s newfound midrange game has been DeAndre Jordan's newfound moves in the post this season. Jordan was a non-factor on the offensive end last season, but after working with Thate and Clippers assistant Marc Iavaroni this offseason, Jordan doesn't simply look to pass the ball when he gets it. He has developed a nice jump hook as his go-to move and has worked on counters off that move. He is seemingly getting more comfortable with each passing game, incorporating ball fakes and backing down defenders that in the past didn't have to worry about Jordan. His improvement has been so rapid and noticeable that Shaquille O'Neal called Jordan the best center in the West earlier this season after Jordan recorded back-to-back 20-point games, which he had never done before in his career.