Four questions for four writers, previewing the Thunder’s second round series against the Clippers, which tips on Monday night in OKC:
1. Who has the advantage at point guard in this series?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Chris Paul. He’s the game’s best point guard because of how he orchestrates his team’s offense and makes each of his teammates better. Everyone’s a threat when Paul is on the court. Westbrook is much more erratic and unpredictable. He’s going to look to put pressure on defenses mostly with relentless attacks of his own. It’s worked well for the Thunder, but it leaves others standing around not sure of when their opportunities will come. It also makes the Thunder more predictable and, at times, easier to defend. Where Westbrook has the advantage, though, is his non-stop hustle. He’s going to rebound, fly to the ball and get steals and inspire his team with unbridled passion. If he can do those things while keeping his emotions in check, this matchup will be closer than it’s ever been.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - When both are at their best, Westbrook’s best is better. He has the higher ceiling. Saturday night’s triple-double (27-16-10) was the greatest example. He’s powerful, quick and explosive at all times, but only capable of dominating this matchup with Paul if he remains calculated and under control. Paul is gimpy right now, nursing a strained hamstring. But he still dropped 22 points and 14 assists in the Game 7 win over Golden State, using his unrivaled wits and crafty skill to control the game. Both are all-world competitors with differing styles. The edge in this series will likely go to the edge in this matchup. Should be fun.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - Thunder. Yes, Chris Paul is an amazing point guard, and no one loves CP3 any more than me. He was OKC’s first NBA star. But Westbrook is way more equipped to handle this matchup on both ends of the court. Westbrook may not stop Paul every time, but I guarantee, Paul will need help guarding Westbrook. That speed, size and athleticism is just too much. Add in the point guard that the Thunder has coming off the bench, and OKC gets the advantage at that position.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Well, I suppose the Clippers, because Chris Paul generally is considered the NBA’s best. But a couple of things make you wonder. First, Paul’s health. He’s not been real healthy for a number of years. Meanwhile, while Westbrook has fought through surgeries related to a meniscus tear, there’s a difference between unhealthy and being injured. Paul is chronically hurt. And Westbrook is a bad matchup for CP3. Westbrook can overpower him, and is quicker.
2. Finish this sentence: The Clippers can steal this series if __________.
Mayberry - The Thunder can’t defend the 3-point line. Open 3s are the universal sign of defensive breakdowns. If the Clippers get a bunch of them, the Thunder once again is dogging it on defense. And against the Clippers, that absolutely cannot happen. Atlanta is the only team that hoisted more 3s than L.A.’s 26.4 average attempts in the first round. The Clippers can flat out burn you from beyond the arc. And let’s not forget, this is a Thunder team that yielded 39.3 percent shooting from 3-point range after the All-Star break. OKC caught a break against Memphis. The Thunder will have to be much more mindful of the 3-point line against the Clippers.
Slater - Their bench outplays OKC’s. The Thunder becomes vulnerable when its role players struggle, as we saw during the Memphis series. In the Thunder’s Game 2 and 3 losses, Beno Udrih and the Grizzlies’ reserves torched OKC 67-24 in bench points. And — BREAKING NEWS — the Clippers bench is far more dangerous than what Memphis was throwing out there. Darren Collison is a solid back-up point guard, Danny Granger is still dangerous, Big Baby tosses his body around with the best of them and Jamal Crawford just won his second Sixth Man award. He’s a lethal game-changer that can take over for pockets of the game. OKC must limit him.
Carlson - Their bigs have their way. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are a load, and in case you haven’t been playing attention, Oklahoma’s own Big Blake has elevated his game into elite territory. Count him among the top five players on the planet now. Griffin and running buddy Jordan will be a handful for Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Co. Those guys were masterful against the Memphis bigs. They’ll need another stellar performance against the Los Angeles big men.
Tramel - Blake Griffin dominates. The Thunder has a variety of options to guard Griffin, starting with Serge Ibaka and extending to Nick Collison, Steven Adams and even, in small doses, Kendrick Perkins. But none are perfect matches for Griffin. Ibaka can get overpowered by Griffin. The others out-quicked.
3. Who is the X-factor in this series?
Mayberry - I’ll say DeAndre Jordan. He has the potential to be plagued by foul trouble and inneffective throughout the series, or he could be a game-changer with his ability to rebound, protect the rim and get easy points off lob passes and putbacks. No matter what either team does, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are going to have a certain level of success. Reggie Jackson and Jamal Crawford might be in that mix as well. But Jordan is the wild card whose play in this series could drastically swing the scale in favor of one team.
Slater - There’s a ton, but the biggest is probably Reggie Jackson. As the back-up point guard, he has a clear advantage over Darren Collison. But he’s much more than a backup point guard. Jackson is the Thunder’s sixth man. And he’s getting ready to go up against the league’s sixth man. Jackson is likely to be on the court for 30-plus minutes per game, including crunch time as the off-guard — meaning he’ll be forced into guarding Jamal Crawford. Jackson’s defense has been rightly criticized all season. Can he contain one of the league’s most lethal shot-makers? Can he punish Crawford on the other end? Should be a huge matchup to watch.
Carlson - Serge Ibaka. Remember this budding rivalry between Ibaka and Griffin? How they always seem to get wrapped up in weird ways? That’s because they’re matching each other out there. If Serge can get the best of that matchup every now and again – and he most certainly can and will – that will go a long ways for the Thunder. But if Griffin somehow dominates the matchup, that won’t bode well for OKC.
4. Who you got, how many games, why?
Mayberry - Thunder in 7. I think the Thunder has better counters for the Clippers’ best two players than the Clippers have for the Thunder’s one-two punch. And even though Blake Griffin showed incredible improvement this year, I’m also still skeptical about L.A.’s ability to manufacture offense without Chris Paul. He’s the only true threat that can create for himself and others. Neutralize him, and the Clippers aren’t nearly as explosive. But the Thunder’s defensive struggles, particularly at the 3-point line, are real. And I expect the Clippers to capitalize on those and make this a highly competitive series. Ultimately, though, the Thunder’s the better team on both ends, and I see OKC advancing.
Slater - Thunder in 7. But I’ve wavered on this pick. Almost 50-50. Despite the Memphis series we just saw, I think the Clippers are the Thunder’s biggest threat in the West. Have all season. Blake Griffin made a Grand Canyon leap, turning from athletic highlight reel to one of the NBA’s top five players this season. He’s a dominant and skilled physical force. Plus the Clippers are far removed from the Vinny Del Negro days. Doc Rivers gives them championship experience roaming the sidelines. He’s a master at in-series adjustments. So to me, it’s a toss-up. But OKC has Game 7 at home.
Carlson - I said Thunder in seven before the playoffs started, and I’m sticking with that. This is going to be a back-and-forth series. Both teams are really good, and it’s going to take every game that they’re allowed to decide this one.
Tramel - I’ll go Thunder in seven. I think the Thunder causes the Clippers a lot of problems. The primary two are how to guard Westbrook and how to guard Kevin Durant. The Thunder has many more answers to their matchup questions than do the Clippers.