After a long seven game series against the grit and grind Memphis Grizzlies, it was quite clear that the Thunder were not ready for the Clippers in game one. With only one day between games, OKC came out sluggish and was dominated for 48 minutes. Heading in to game two the Thunder are in desperate need of a win. The possibility of heading to LA trailing the Clippers 2-0 in the series is something that they cannot let happen if they want to have a serious chance to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Game one was a disaster. From start to finish the Clippers ran the Thunder off of their home court. The list of problems with the Thunder’s performance was a mile long. Offensively, they reverted back to the style of play that haunted them during the Memphis series. Simply put, there was no flow. Seemingly every possession ended in a late in the shot clock isolation, resulting in a contested jumper or a turnover. Defensively the Thunder were no better. They looked lost, leaving players unguarded for open jumpers and uncontested shots at the rim. From miscommunication to flat out lack of effort defensively, the entire game is one that needs to be forgotten.
Fortunately for OKC, they can do just that. Only trailing by one game, the Thunder has a chance to put the last game in the rear view and set the tone for the remainder of the series.
Heading in to game two there are a few keys that for Thunder that will help them swing the momentum and get back to their winning ways.
1. Scott Brooks
What many people tend to forget when they play head coach from their couch or Twitter account is that with every decision a coach makes, there are positives and negatives. Many fans thinks that there is one right answer and everything else is irrelevant. That is just not the case. When Scott Brooks decided to enter Caron Butler in to the starting lineup late in the opening round series, it was a game changer. Brooks was making a conscious effort to space the floor on the offensive end and it worked. The Thunder offense opened up, allowing them to move the ball swiftly and get great shots. The downside to having Butler in the lineup over Thabo Sefolosha is the drop-off defensively. Although Butler is a competent defender, he is not the caliber of player that Sefolosha is defensively. This wasn’t as much of an issue against Memphis because they lack the perimeter weapons to make the Thunder pay for making that move.
In game one against the Clippers, Brooks elected to put Sefolosha back in the lineup to combat LA’s high octane scoring attack, and rightfully so. Sefolosha has had success in the past guarding Chris Paul, particularly in the pick and roll. The problem with the decision in this case is that he left Russell Westbrook on Paul, and the Clippers point guard had is way. Westbrook is a very good one on one defender but has had trouble against the pick and roll in the past, most recently in the first round against Memphis.
The simple answer would be to have Sefolosha guard Paul. He has the quickness to stay in front of him and the size to switch on screens if need be. Westbrook could do a terrific job guarding JJ Redick because he is more than fast enough to chase Redick around the court and is tall and athletic enough to contest his jumpers.
If Brooks elects to have Butler in the starting lineup instead, it will tremendously help the Thunder’s offensive attack. By spacing the floor alone he opens things up for Durant and Westbrook to do their thing. If he his hitting his shots it will add another dimension to the offense and allow the stars to kick it to him if the defense collapses. Even if he does not start, it will be important for Brooks to make sure that he plays big minutes and is in the game in key situations because of his value offensively.
Whether Brooks decides to switch defensive matchups or even makes a lineup change by putting Butler back in for offense, it could make or break not only the game, but the entire series.
On Tuesday Kevin Durant accepted his first of hopefully many MVP trophies. At the acceptance ceremony the Thunder’s star gave the world a glimpse of who he really is. He let his guard down and opened up to his teammates, the coaching staff and his family in a touching and emotional speech. This moment couldn’t have come at a better time for the Thunder. Coming off of a terrible loss, with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders, KD let go and let it all out. This should be a unifying moment for the team as they saw how much Durant cares about the team and its success as well as them individually. Expect Durant and the team to be loose heading in to game two, and expect the MVP to make it clear that he deserves that title.
3. Bench play
One of the clear advantages for the Clippers heading in to this series was their depth, especially on the wings. With players like Jamal Crawford, Daren Collison, and Danny Granger playing key minutes off the bench, LA is confident in their second unit on most nights. The Thunder also believe their bench can be a positive factor but it has yet to make a serious impact in the playoffs. Reggie Jackson has been inconsistent, scoring 31 in game four of the Memphis series to help the Thunder pick up a victory, and then practically disappearing in other games. Jackson was a key contributor all year for the Thunder and will need to step up his game on Wednesday to help his team win and stay alive in the series. One bright spot for OKC off the bench has been the play of rookie Steven Adams. He was an eraser at the rim in the opening round, blocking shot after shot. He also brings a toughness and physicality on the inside that will be very important against the imposing bigs of the Clippers.
Last but certainly not least, the Thunder need to come out hot in game two. They have made a habit of falling behind early in games and having to fight their way back. Whether they rally off of Kevin Durant’s MVP award acceptance or simply make an effort to step up their intensity early on, it will be crucial to their chances in this game as well as the entire series. Keep an eye on Russell Westbrook. Because his energy is always at the highest possible level, he may look to attack the basket early and set the tone for the entire game.
The importance of game two for the Thunder couldn’t possibly be overstated. Only three teams in NBA history have advanced after losing the first two games of a series at home. If the Thunder can come away with a win on Wednesday night, they will not only even up the series but could gain the momentum they need to get things back on track and make a push towards a much desired NBA title.