The Clippers and Thunder tangled for the second time in six nights -- to the same result.
The first half was an eyesore, as the Thunder led nearly the whole way despite a bevy of turnovers by both teams. Then the Clippers rallied back to drop the Thunder 92-77 on Monday, five nights after Los Angeles went into Oklahoma City and stole one on the Thunder's home court. The game was a revelation for the Clippers, and a nightmare for the Thunder after halftime.
So many of the Clippers' wins this season have been of the lightning-in-the-bottle variety. Randy Foye will get hot from long range, or Chris Paul will emerge from the bullpen late in the fourth quarter and carry the team to an improbable win. A win is a win -- but the best teams in the league rely on reliable systems and methods to chalk up victories. The Clippers, on the other hand, have been masters of serendipity. But that wasn't the case Monday night, when the Clippers collectively identified Oklahoma City's weaknesses and attacked them. Playing a grown-up brand of basketball, the Clippers threw a steady stream of different defensive coverages at the Thunder. When the Thunder confronted their strengths with strength, the Clippers made reads and found workarounds. This is how mature basketball teams win big games in the NBA and, in taking out the Thunder with substance and savvy, the Clippers played up to their potential Monday. The pyrotechnics will explode at some point; the Clippers' challenge going forward is adopting a series of principles that will guide them when they don't.
The turning point of the game came toward the end of the third quarter when Nick Young exploded for eight points in three possessions. Prior to Monday, Young had been terrible for the Clippers, failing to shoot over 50 percent from the field in any of his 17 games with the Clippers. That was largely a function of looking for the wrong shots in the wrong spots. But during this stretch of possessions, he played off the Clippers' primary action: the middle pick-and-roll between Paul and Blake Griffin. On the first shot, the Thunder trapped Paul, then the other three OKC defenders converged on Griffin in the lane. Griffin takes a lot of grief as a "one-dimensional" player. Ever seen him move the ball out of a triple-team? That's what he did there to find Young open for two. One possession later, Paul ran a little slip screen with Griffin. This time, Young needed some help, so DeAndre Jordan pinned Kevin Durant (Young's man) out of the play. Young was open for a 3-pointer at a spot a couple of feet deeper than the previous one. On the third possession, the Clippers ran that Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll one more time. Again, a trap and, again, Durant got caught helping middle (to pick up Jordan on a duck-in) rather than staying at home on Young. It's safe to say Paul is a guy who knows how to make hedging defenders look silly. He did here. In a flash, the Clippers shaved the Thunder's lead down to a single point. Young finished with 19 points on 11 true shots without a turnover. The swag was back, at least for a night, and a very opportune one at that.
In their heyday, the Celtics got away with a lot of turnovers, largely because they were impossible to score against for long stretches of basketball. The Thunder have a reasonably efficient defense, but they can't continue to cough up the ball on nearly a sixth of their possessions, because a team like San Antonio or the Lakers -- or even the Clippers, who protect the ball well -- will punish them for it. Russell Westbrook, who scored the Thunder's first seven points, couldn't find his cutters in the first half, errors that resulted in a slew of turnovers. In the third quarter, Serge Ibaka couldn't make a simple entry pass into the high post, and Westbrook found a wide-open Vinny Del Negro for a kickout. All of it made for very bad news, as the Thunder couldn't get out of their own way.
The Clippers started dabbling with the zone a couple of months back when their man-to-man defense was in shambles. The schemes weren't terribly effective, but you could see the faint sketch of something that could potentially work. The Clippers are quick and long, and they certainly had the potential to compensate for their lack of reliable isolation defenders by using their size and athleticism in the zone. Gradually, that zone defense has improved, and it hummed just before halftime. Jordan was everywhere, and the Clippers were quick to match up the instant the Thunder found a seam. I caught up with Chauncey Billups after the game to ask him about the Clippers' zone, which gave up only seven points in 13 possessions. Billups was miffed when Flip Saunders installed the zone in Detroit, because he took it as an affront to his Pistons' defensive capabilities. Zone, as Metta World Peace recently told me, was for teams that can't defend in man, and for a certain proud vet, the scheme still carries a stigma. "We looked at it like it was a weakness, like you couldn't stop anybody," Billups said. "But it's a good gimmick to change up a defense." The Clippers, with Jordan anchoring underneath in Chandlerian fashion, are making it work. The Thunder couldn't lay off the long jumpers (though Durant missed a couple of open ones from long range), or they drove recklessly into the teeth of the zone. No flashes, few cuts and little patience.
Oklahoma City couldn't make sense of the Clippers' varied coverages. The Clippers ran under Westbrook on pick-and-roll plays -- but not the big man -- giving the eager point guard just enough rope to hang himself ... but not too much. The Clippers played Durant straight-up in isolation or in the post, with the occasional trap. Sometimes they'd switch when Durant came off the pindown, sometimes not. "The big thing was to make [Durant] catch as high as possible," Kenyon Martin said. "Sometimes out of timeouts we'd switch the coverage if we saw he was getting low, and sometimes we made a read." Durant shot 7-for-18 from the floor, and drained 10 of 12 from the line.
Aside from the handful of lousy close-outs, the Thunder didn't play a poor defensive game. Their defensive pick-and-roll strategy can best be characterized as a "long show." The big man -- be it Kendrick Perkins or Ibaka -- stayed with Paul until the point guard gave up the ball, and this creates all sorts of confusion behind this quasi-blitz. The Clippers' wing would stagnate in the corner, while Griffin would shuffle around the high post desperately looking to provide a pressure release for Paul. More times than not, it worked, even against a menace like Paul. The Clippers point guard finished with 12 points (5-for-12 FGAs, 1-for-2 FTAs) and 10 assists. Not bad, but hardly destructive.