When the Los Angeles Clippers walk into Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday, they'll roll in red hot, coming to town atop the Western Conference at 8-2, with a league-best six-game winning streak and the NBA's last unblemished road record.
In other words, the Thunder's worst nightmare has gotten even scarier.
For all the talk about how the new-look Lakers are destined to dethrone the defending Western Conference champions, it's the Clippers who loom as the Thunder's biggest threat. The Clippers, historically, just haven't been a good matchup for the Thunder, and this, the first of three regular-season meetings, will be our first glimpse into whether anything has changed.
The Thunder can only hope so, as the Clippers are shaping up to be among the teams Oklahoma City must go through if it intends on making a return trip to the NBA Finals.
“(The) Clippers are playing probably the best basketball in the league right now,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Last year's struggles against L.A. aren't forgotten. The Thunder went 1-3 against the Clippers, losing by an average margin of 9.7 points. That point differential included road losses by 12 and 15 points, respectively.
And the Clippers are even better this year.
L.A.'s core now has a year of experience to draw from, along with a bolstered bench that includes the addition of Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins and a healthy Eric Bledsoe. Those acquisitions have helped the Clippers get off to a sizzling start despite Chauncey Billups still being sidelined while recovering from an Achilles injury and Grant Hill (knee) yet to make his debut, also because of injury.
But what makes the Clippers such a difficult matchup is their ability to combat the Thunder's strong suits with similar, if not better, strengths. L.A. has the right blend of youth and athleticism, size and 3-point shooting, leadership and depth to deal with just about anything the Thunder throws its way. Few teams, if any, can counter OKC quite like the Clippers.
It's why a seven-game series between these two teams would be must-see TV but one the Thunder perhaps would rather avoid if possible.
“It'll be a good test for us, for sure,” said Nick Collison.
Let's label this first meeting a progress report.
The Thunder still is searching for its first “quality” win after rolling over teams like Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto. Oklahoma City's wins this season have come against opponents with a combined record of 26-44, a 0.371 winning percentage. Golden State, at 6-5, is the only team the Thunder has defeated that currently sports a winning record.
The Clippers, on the other hand, have wins against Memphis, the Lakers, San Antonio (twice) and Miami among other teams. Going into Tuesday's games, none of the Clippers' wins came against an opponent that currently has a losing record. L.A.'s wins have come against opponents with a combined 0.602 winning percentage.
“They're good,” Collison said. “I think they're tough on a lot of teams. Chris Paul's obviously very good in pick-and-rolls and he draws a lot of attention. But they've got other talented players around him so they're a tough team to beat.”
In Blake Griffin, who played at OCS and OU, and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have two athletic big men who complement Paul perfectly as options in the pick-and-roll game. With both Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers force the Thunder to be locked in at all times defensively or risk giving up momentum-swinging alley-oop dunks. And with Crawford, Barnes, Caron Butler and Willie Green, the Clippers have shooters who can make the Thunder's defense pay if too much emphasis is placed on keeping Paul, Griffin and Jordan out of the paint.
Beyond that, the Clippers' bench has been fabulous, leading all teams with 42.2 points per game — exactly 11 more a night than the Thunder's reserves contribute. Powered by their bench backcourt of Crawford, the team's leading scorer and the front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year, and Bledsoe, the ultra-athletic point guard, the Clippers are outscoring opposing benches by 18.1 points per game, good for second in the league behind Milwaukee.
“Their bench is much better than a year ago, and Bledsoe off the bench is a force,” Brooks said. “He has tenacity, he has toughness (and) he seems to always make the right plays, hustle plays.
“They had a good team last year, but obviously I think they're much better this year.”
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 679, Dish 416, U-Verse 754/HD 1754), ESPN (Cox 29/HD 720, DirecTV 206, Dish 140, U-Verse 602/HD1602).
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* The Thunder is 6-9 all-time against the Clippers, including a 1-3 record in last year's four-game series.
* The Clippers are on a league-best six-game winning streak and are the only remaining unbeaten team on the road this season.
* After averaging a league-worst 18.5 assists last year, the Thunder is now averaging 22.4 assists, good for seventh in the league before Tuesday's games. The Thunder is coming off back-to-back games of a recording a season-high 31 assists.