The Western Conference semifinals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers promised offensive fireworks. Game 1 delivered — just not in the way fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena hoped.
In a game that wasn't even as close as the final score, the Clippers thrashed the Thunder for a 122-105 win that gives them home-court advantage for the rest of the series. OKC will be left to wonder how things went so terribly wrong in the series opener.
The Clippers' offensive onslaught started early. In a very open first quarter, the Clippers went 16 of 23 from the field and 7 of 10 from the 3-point line to score 39 points. It was a dominant display of shooting, shot creation, and virtually every other talent or skill required to score at this level. Chris Paul led the way with 17 points on 5 of 5 beyond the arc.
The Thunder could not keep pace. Facing a much less restrictive defense than in their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the West's No.2 seed performed ably with 25 first-quarter points but clearly did not maximize their opportunities or convert when they had them. Head coach Scott Brooks has been criticized often for not implementing a particularly complicated offensive scheme, and he's likely to hear more of the same after this game. His team turned it over five times in the opening quarter, resorted to outside jumpers, and generally seemed to lack the attention to detail required to keep pace with such a hot-shooting opponent.
The Clippers maintained their advantage in the second quarter and headed into halftime with a 69-52 lead. That total represented the second-highest postseason scoring half in franchise history — one off the 70 they scored in the second half of Game 7 vs. Golden State. It's likely the Clippers won't shoot this well for the rest of the series, if not the entire postseason, but it's also hard to say they got particularly lucky. They made the extra passes when necessary, found open shots virtually every possession and turned it over only three times in the half. A 13-6 start to the second half buried the Thunder a little more, and their inability to respond with a quick run essentially ended the game halfway through the third quarter.
It was a complete team effort for the Clippers, but Paul was clearly the star of the night. In one of the most efficient shooting performances for a guard in postseason history, the seven-time All-Star scored 32 points on 12-of-14 shooting from the field and an absurd 8-of-9 from 3-point range (the miss came on his last shot). He added 10 assists against two turnovers for good measure. If Paul plays at anywhere close to this level for the rest of the series, it's a good bet he'll make the first conference finals of his career.
The Thunder will search for answers over the next two days. Despite 17 turnovers — a not unheard of total for this team, even on their best days — the Thunder offense wasn't that bad. Kevin Durant, who figures to receive his first MVP award before Game 2, scored 25 points on 9-of-19 shooting. Russell Westbrook continued his minor run of good scoring games with a team-high 29 points on 9 of 14 from the field, and Serge Ibaka added his now-customary 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting. It's not ideal for those totals to represent 72.3 percent of the team's scoring, but this offense has always been extremely dependent on the contributions of these three players.
The problem is the Thunder will clearly need more at both ends to top the Clippers. Durant and Westbrook can't just put in average performances — they have to dominate. Reggie Jackson and other bench scorers can't be non-factors. The defense can't allow so many open shots, even if they fell victim to a presumably irreproducible shooting performance. Against the Grizzlies, the Thunder could keep things close with subpar offensive numbers and iffy defense simply because their opponents have so much trouble scoring. That will not be the case against the Clippers, who appear to have figured out how to marry their highlight-intensive style with the intensity of the postseason.
Game 2 now takes on added importance, both for the obvious advantage in the series and what it will say about the Thunder's readiness for the moment. We'll find out more on Wednesday night.
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