Add another team to the Thunder’s do-not-wish-to-play-early-in-the-playoffs list: the Clippers. The Clips routed OKC 92-77 Monday night, a game in which the Thunder led until the fourth quarter and which was a 74-73 score with 71/2 minutes left.
The Thunder now is 1-3 vs. the Clippers this season, with two blowout losses. But unlike Memphis, which the Thunder would like to avoid because of matchup problems, OKC should seek to avoid the Clippers because of attitude problems. The Thunder seems to lose its composure against the Clippers.
Russell Westbrook reverted to his previous-season tendency to play macho ball when Chris Paul is on the court. Alas, it gets even worse. Westbrook did the same with Eric Bledsoe, CP3′s backup. We’ve seen this on occasion from Westbrook, who seemingly feeling that his manhood has been questioned, will try for futile steals and take ill-advised drives. It makes for horrible basketball and helps the Thunder get steamrolled.
But misery had company Monday night. Kevin Durant, too, got frustrated. A lack of fundamentals — taking care of the ball, not understanding situations, trying to make a point by making a play — led to empty possession after empty possession. Westbrook and Durant had five turnovers each. Paul seemed to get under Westbrook’s skin, and the goofy Nick Young seemed to get under Durant’s. The Thunder’s two all-stars combined to make 11 of 34 shots.
Eventually, the composure loss spread to defense, where in the fourth quarter Durant, trying to help out in the lane, let Young free for open shot after shot, and the penetrating Paul found Blake Griffin open for easy dunks down the stretch, when the Clips broke away.
Just an awful performance by the Thunder, which had scratched its way to a 52-43 halftime lead even though it had played none too well. Here’s how bad this game was: Serge Ibaka was the only highlight, with his 12 points and seven rebounds in the second quarter alone. Ibaka’s relentless offensive rebounding kept the Thunder ahead. But by game’s end, Ibaka had a game-worst minus-18 plus/minus — the Thunder were outscored by 18 points when Ibaka was on the court.
For whatever reason, the Thunder doesn’t play well against these former Oklahoma stars. Westbrook often seems to be trying to prove his worth against Paul, who spent two years in OKC as a Hornet. And the whole danged Thunder franchise has had a burr up its saddle about Griffin, the former OU star, even though Thunder loyalists long ago showed that it adores the lowliest Boomer — Lazar Hayward, Robert Reid — to an all-star native son.
All of which means the Thunder would be best-served to avoid the Clippers as long as possible. And presto, that wish might come true. In the current Western Conference standings, the Thunder has slipped to the No. 2 seed, which puts OKC on a bracket with Denver, the Lakers and Dallas. Meanwhile, San Antonio, Memphis and the Clippers are on the other side.
The Thunder could live with that. It’s still possible the Clippers could pass the Lakers for the No. 3 seed. Or the Thunder could pass the Spurs for No. 1. The two Laker-Spur games — Tuesday night and Friday night — will go a long way in determining those seeds.
But the No. 1 seed the Thunder has sought all season might not be as important as avoiding Memphis and the Clippers, two teams it has difficulty beating. The Thunder is 3-1 vs. Memphis this season, but all were close games. And being on the same side of the bracket as the Lakers doesn’t seem so daunting; OKC was built to beat the Lakers and appears to have the manpower to offset the Lakers’ size.
But that other team in Los Angeles has a hex on the Thunder. OKC loses its head against the Clippers. Its head, its composure and, quite often, the game.