RUSSELL WESTBROOK VS. CHRIS PAUL
ANALYSIS: This matchup feels much too good for a semifinal. That’s because Paul and Westbrook might be the best two point guards in the game. Paul is the better playmaker. Westbrook is the better athlete. Both get the job done despite their different approaches. The Thunder’s first-round series against Memphis, however, showed us that Westbrook still has a ways to go before realizing his full potential. He still settles for questionable shots, struggles with turning the ball over at an alarming rate and loafs at times defensively. Clean up any two of those three and he could replace Paul as the premier player at the position. Until that time, Paul remains the more trustworthy threat.
CARON BUTLER VS. J.J. REDICK
ANALYSIS: This is a new look for Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ starting lineup. But there’s no guarantee Brooks sticks to it with the way Redick runs off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Thabo Sefolosha might be better suited for defensive duty at the start than he was against Memphis. But bringing him off the bench makes sense, too (keep reading). Either way, the Thunder has its hands full with Redick, who is one of the best shooters in the game. He shot 39 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in the Clippers’ seven-game series with Golden State, and he’s gotten better every year putting the ball on the floor and creating shots for himself and others. Where Redick struggles is the defensive end. But unless Butler uses his size and strength advantage in the post, Redick shouldn’t have much trouble covering Butler on the perimeter. If it’s Sefolosha who gets the start, Redick might send Brooks a Christmas card.
KEVIN DURANT VS. MATT BARNES
ANALYSIS: Barnes is in big trouble. Durant was down in the dumps for four games against the Grizzlies. He dug himself out of it in the final two games of that series and now looks and sounds supremely confident once again. Barnes is a solid defender, and he won’t back down against Durant or anyone else. And, remember, it was Barnes who helped L.A. hold Durant to 27 points on 8-for-26 shooting in the last regular season meeting. But now that Durant appears to have regained his rhythm and focus, the Clippers just don’t have an answer for him.
SERGE IBAKA VS. BLAKE GRIFFIN
ANALYSIS: Bad timing for Ibaka to meet the Clippers in the playoffs. Griffin has developed into arguably the best power forward in the game. He’s shooting better from mid-range, creating more quality shots for himself and others and making free throws more consistently. All that to say, Ibaka has his hands full with Griffin. Ibaka would be wise to walk into this series focusing on transition defense. Griffin annihilated the Thunder in the last meeting simply by running the floor and getting easy scoring opportunities that got him going early. He’s much too talented to allow him to get easy buckets on the fast break. Ibaka has to make him work. Of course, that’s as hard as ever.
KENDRICK PERKINS VS. DeANDRE JORDAN
ANALYSIS: Perhaps no Clipper benefited more from the arrival of Doc Rivers than Jordan. He enjoyed a career year after becoming a much more focused and consistent defensive player. He averaged 10.4 points and a league-leading 13.6 rebounds this season, along with 2.5 blocked shots and a steal. His physical tools have always been there. Now, he’s developed the tool between his shoulders, and that’s a scary proposition for opposing teams that already must contend with Paul and Griffin. For as good as Perkins was against Memphis, he just doesn’t have the athleticism to keep up with Jordan in transition or on the glass. The Thunder might have to turn to rookie center Steven Adams in spurts. But the Clippers could then exploit him in the pick and roll. In a strange way, this is the toughest matchup for the Thunder, and it’s what makes Jordan the X-factor in this series.
REGGIE JACKSON VS. JAMAL CRAWFORD
ANALYSIS: Crawford’s green light makes him a much tougher cover than Jackson. When he checks in, Crawford is free to take whatever shot he wants. When Jackson comes in, he’s expected to run the team and look for his offense only in stretches. Aside from Crawford’s perimeter shooting ability, it’s the only difference between the two. If you need a straight-up scorer, Crawford’s your man. But if you’re looking for someone who can score, orchestrate the offense, rebound and play off the ball, Jackson is the better option. Crawford’s green light, however, is hard to beat. He’s going to get his, or shoot his team out of the series trying.
ANALYSIS: For the Thunder, it’s Jackson, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha. For the Clippers, it’s Crawford, Darren Collison and not much else. Jared Dudley has fallen out of the Clippers’ rotation, and rightfully so after a hugely disappointing season. And Danny Granger provides little to nothing, making the Clippers reliant on two perimeter players on the bench. One of those, Crawford, can potentially be neutralized if Sefolosha is used in the second unit and assigned to Crawford for 15 minutes a game. It’s a strategy Brooks must strongly consider to limit the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. If he embraces it, and Sefolosha has success in his new role, the Thunder’s wings have a huge advantage.
ANALYSIS: Steven Adams played 21 minutes through the first five games of the Grizzlies series. He then helped change the series — in more ways than one — by playing 45 minutes in the last two games. His effectiveness as a rebounder, roller, shot-blocker and hustler threw the Grizzlies a wrench they simply weren’t ready for. It’s not unreasonable to think he could have a similar impact against the Clippers. But with Nick Collison also coming off the bench, the Thunder has ample ammo in reserve to help contend with Griffin and Jordan. The Clippers lean heavily at times on Glen Davis, who can change the game with his energy. Ryan Hollins has impacted a game or two in his career with his length and athleticism. But the Clippers ride their starters and aren’t relying on either to be impact players.
SCOTT BROOKS VS. DOC RIVERS
ANALYSIS: Brooks made a monumental decision (by his standards) in Game 6 when he altered his starting lineup and brought more balance to the first string. It’s the type of management many have wanted to see from Brooks for years but the type he’s been hesitant to embrace. Regardless of how long it took him, Brooks showed growth in the Grizzlies series. Still, Rivers has championship chops as a coach. He is equal to, if not better than, Brooks as a motivator and surpasses him as a game manager and shot-caller. Brooks has outfoxed better coaches than Rivers (see the 2012 Western Conference Finals). But this won’t be the series to stick to the status quo.
CHESAPEAKE ENERGY ARENA VS. STAPLES CENTER
ANALYSIS: Finally. Loud City meets Lob City. Both venues have their strengths. All jokes aside, the Clippers have had a long-established hardcore base that has only blossomed with their franchise rise. And we know all about the passion of Thunder fans. Both teams went 34-7 at home in the regular season and enjoyed 100 percent capacity this season. But Oklahoma City’s loyalty in the bad times — yes, there were some bad times — gives the advantage to the Thunder.
ANALYSIS: Both teams were pushed to Game 7s in the first round. Both teams lost on their home court and had at least one disheartening showing in the opening round. So neither is rolling right now. Besides, momentum might not be a factor at this stage of the season. If each game takes on its own personality, it certainly would be difficult for the previous series to factor heavily into the ensuing series from a team standpoint.
ANALYSIS: Any team with Derek Fisher is going to have an advantage in postseason experience. The Thunder’s reserve guard is now the all-time leader in career playoff games. But the Thunder is no longer reliant on Fisher’s playoff mettle. Caron Butler’s addition gives the Thunder another veteran with six years of postseason experience that came with four different teams. Kendrick Perkins also has championship experience. And now, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are seasoned postseason players. The Clippers’ top five most experienced playoff performers, in order, are Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Matt Barnes, J.J. Redick and Chris Paul.