How the Clippers Stole the Thunder's Thunder
How badly did the Clippers dominate the Thunder in game one of the Western Conference semifinals Monday night? With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let us count the ways.
1. So badly that the 122-105 final score didn't reflect the real gap between the two teams, which for most of the game hovered between 20 and 29 points. Only a too-little-too-late surge by the Thunder's reserves made the game seem semi-competitive for those who hadn't actually watched it.
2. So badly that the Thunder brought out the Hack-a-Jordan desperation tactic midway through the third quarter, deliberately fouling the Clips worst foul shooter, 6-foot-11 Center DeAndre Jordan, on possession after possession. And even though it theoretically worked - he made only one of eight foul shots before Coach Doc Rivers took him out - the Thunder didn't close the gap because they couldn't score on the Clippers suffocating defense.
3. So badly that Lawler's Law - Clippers announcer Ralph (Bingo!) Lawler's long-standing proclamation that the first team to 100 points usually wins the game - was invoked in the third quarter, an exceedingly rare occurrence in any game.
4. So badly that the Clips scored 104 points through three quarters, only one less than the Thunder scored in the entire game.
5. So badly that Thunder Coach Scott Brooks pulled his starters at the beginning of the fourth quarter, turning the final 12 minutes into extended garbage time, another exceedingly rare occurrence in a playoff game.
6. So badly that the Thunder's No. 2 star Russell Westbrook, the muscular 6-foot-4 wingman to NBA MVP Kevin Durant, was so frustrated by the middle of the second quarter that he took himself out of a timeout huddle to go and sit on the last chair on the team's bench, ignoring the efforts of his teammates and coach to come up with a strategy to stop the Clip's tsunami of scoring.
7. So badly that the Thunder had no answer for Chris Paul, who hit his first eight 3-point shots and finished with 32 points in only 28 minutes for an early celebration of his 29th birthday on Tuesday.
The beatdown was so bad that you could say the Clips came into the Thunder's house and stole their thunder, as most "experts" had predicted that OKC would win the series in five or six games.
There were so many positive patterns and trends for the Clippers, now that they have home-court advantage with three of the next five games at Staples Center, to project that the Clips will win this best-of-seven series in seven games or even six.
First and foremost was Paul's domination of Westbrook. Before the series, all the talking heads had predicted that the six-foot Paul would be unable to cope with the size, speed and sheer power of Westbrook. But the opposite turned out to be true: Westbrook was unable to cope with the agility, hoops IQ and stop-on-a-dime quickness of Paul, who orchestrated the Clip's efficient half-court offense and got all his teammates consistently involved.
Westbrook, meanwhile, typically tried to overpower Paul and everyone else in his way. When he had to pass, he looked first, second, and third only for Durant, essentially taking his other three teammates out of the offense and rendering them useless. If Paul can consistently win his matchup with Westbrook, the series is over because that leaves only Durant as a serious scoring threat. And as great a shooter as Durant is, he can't beat a team as good as the Clippers all by himself.
The Clippers also looked too deep for the Thunder to deal with over the course of a long series. Their second unit of Darren Collison, Big Baby Davis, Danny Granger and Jamal Crawford broke the game open in the second quarter after the starters had sprinted to a 39-25 lead at the end of the first quarter. And while Jordan continued to dominate the post area and demonstrate that he is a legit third star behind Paul and Blake Griffin (23 points), the Thunder's ostensible third star, 6-foot-10 power forward Serge Ibaka, demonstrated that he is just another jump shooter on a team that is already overly reliant on two other jump shooters in Durant and Westbrook. And while Ibaka is a good defender, he's not at Jordan's elite level as a rim protector, rebounder and all-around defensive force.
In ten days that shook the NBA to its core, the Clippers have gone from Donald Sterling's team to America's Team. People all over the country who weren't even NBA fans, much less Clipper fans, have started paying attention to LA's other basketball team while the forgotten Lakers prepare to hire yet another new coach, their fourth in four years. And the Clips are playing like a group that bonded for life after going through a near-death experience with a great leader who had just the right instincts to hold them together while they learned to trust one another on and off the court.
All this is happening while Sterling remains secluded in one of his lonely mansions thinking he is a victim who has nothing to apologize for, V. Stiviano is giving carefully rehearsed answers to a geriatric Barbara Walters, who long ago was a journalist but now is the neighborhood scold, and the rest of the NBA is starting to realize that the Clippers are a legit threat to win the title - this year.
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