The Oklahoma City Thunder were nine minutes away from heading home with a commanding 3-1 lead before Doc Rivers went small, Darren Collison went nuts and the Los Angeles Clippers erased a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to steal Game 4. The thrilling comeback knotted things up at two games apiece and turned this Western Conference semifinals series into a best-of-three set, starting with a pivotal Game 5.
Two of the three, including Tuesday's tilt, are slated to come at Chesapeake Energy Arena. But despite holding home-court advantage and employing newly minted Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant, will the Thunder come out for Game 5 rattled after giving up a golden opportunity to take control of this series? Or will Scott Brooks and company be able to restore order on their home floor and once again put the Clips on the brink? Here are two big things to keep an eye out for when you tune in on Tuesday night.
1. Which team will go small first, and which team will do so most successfully?
For all the talk about the job Chris Paul did in the fourth quarter of Game 4 as the latest smaller defender to fluster KD — and a fine job it was, done with plenty of help from double-teams and passing-lane clogging by his Clipper teammates — we shouldn't give short shrift to the scorching scoring L.A. mustered during the late-game stretch that saved its season. The Clippers outscored the Thunder 35-17 over the final 9:01 on Sunday, with virtually all that damage done by a small-ball five-man unit — Paul, Collison, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger — that hadn't logged a single minute of playing time together this season, but rolled up a monstrous 33 points on 12 for 15 shooting in its season debut.
That three-guard, Granger-at-the-four, Griffin-at-the-five group bested the Thunder by 16 points in the space of just nine minutes. The Clips used active hands and opportunistic defense to create turnovers that led to run-outs, and used their quickness to take advantage of the improved spacing provided by having multiple long-range shooters on the floor, attacking the basket whenever possible and going 11-for-12 at the rim to close the game.
Still, despite the breakneck finish that ended Game 4 in his favor, Rivers sounds unwilling to lean too heavily on such guard-heavy looks on Tuesday.
"It's not something you can bank on, it's not something you're going to do full-time or anything like that," he said, according to The Associated Press. "[…] It really is going to be a game time and game situational thing for us. Having those three guards on the floor makes it very difficult to guard us. We know that. But it also puts us in a bind defensively."
The Clippers struggled in defending small OKC lineups in Game 1, when four combinations of one big man (Serge Ibaka or Steven Adams) alongside Durant at the four, Russell Westbrook at point, and some mix of Caron Buler, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher at the two wing positions scored 43 points in 16 total minutes of floor time. Ditto in Game 3, when such small lineups put up 47 points in just under 16 minutes, with a pair of lineups — Ibaka-Durant-Butler-Jackson-Westbrook, and Adams-Durant-Butler-Jackson-Fisher — combining to outscore the Clips by 15 points in 14 minutes. Those same two units, however, got washed in Game 4, combining for a -26 mark in 12 total minutes as the Clippers' brand of small-ball carried the day.
It would stand to reason that Rivers would feel uncomfortable defending Oklahoma City without starting center, shot-blocker and space-eater DeAndre Jordan on the floor, especially given the dearth of defensive options behind him on the Clipper bench. But L.A.'s actually had much more success in this series when Jordan has sat (allowing just 95.5 points per 100 possessions, outscoring OKC by 23 points-per-100) than when he's been in the game (giving up 120.3 points-per-100, outscored by 12.8-per-100).
That obviously has to do with the difference between starting groups and reserve units, and the relative lack of scoring punch that Oklahoma City can bring off the bench, and the difficult task of trying to find predictive information in small samples. Still, though, it's become fairly well established — especially since Game 1, which carries with it the all-important Point God Game asterisk — that the Thunder function best with their starting five on the floor. Going small for stretches — especially if Granger's feeling spry and looking to have some legs under his jumper — could provide just the sort of change-of-pace the Clippers could use to upset OKC's war machine.
2. Can Blake Griffin get off the schneid against Serge Ibaka?
In case you're wondering why the Clippers would be especially ticked off that the Congolese shot-blocker didn't receive a suspension for this uncomfortable Game 4 swat:
… the reason goes beyond mere groinal discomfort and a steadfast belief that, above all else, basketball players should stop hitting one another in the stuff. Life would be way, way, way better for the Clippers, and for their All-Star power forward in particular, if Ibaka had been forced to take a seat.
Griffin mauled David Lee in the post in Round 1 before then-Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson started siccing the long-armed and pugnacious Draymond Green on Blake, which wound up being a much more successful matchup for the Dubs. Ibaka, however, is an entirely different class of defender, and Griffin — despite posting a strong stat line of 24.3 points, seven rebounds and 3.3 assists per game on 47.1 percent shooting in the series — is having a devil of a time with the fourth-place finisher in 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Ibaka is a 6-foot-10-inch, 245-pound physical specimen who is strong enough to bang bodies with Blake and quick enough to go step for step with Griffin on face-ups off the bounce. He's got a wingspan well over 7 feet that enables him to contest midrange looks without having to close the gap to the point where he's in danger of Griffin blowing by him; even when he does get beat off the dribble, that length gives him the chance to recover and still bother or outright reject a field-goal attempt at the cup. And after several years of seasoning, he's no longer biting like mad on pump-fakes, lunging at jab-steps and chasing highlights to the detriment of the Thunder's defensive scheme. He's staying at home, locking in on his matchup, and making life miserable for Blake. To wit:
• In 113 minutes with Ibaka on the floor, Griffin's shooting 41.1 percent from the floor, including just 15-for-28 (53.6 percent) inside the restricted area, and has had his shot blocked four times. The Clippers are -10 in those minutes.
• In 35 minutes with Ibaka on the bench, Griffin's shooting 71.4 percent from the floor, including 7-for-9 (77.8 percent) inside the restricted area, and has had his shot blocked once. The Clippers are +15 in those minutes.
Nearly a quarter of Griffin's scoring output in Game 4 came in 64 seconds of being defended by Durant, according to SportVU matchup data, as Blake immediately seized the opportunity to attack anyone other than Ibaka. If Rivers can stagger his rotations or juggle his lineups to create opportunities for Griffin to get off against non-Ibaka defenders, it could serve the Clipper offense in good stead later in the game. If Game 5 features the same brand of Blake trying to put his head down and bull his way through Ibaka, though, the Clipper half-court offense could once again look ugly and in need of a shake-up.
The earlier in the game Rivers can get Blake some of those cleaner looks, the better … and, in fact, Doc might've started the process of doing so after Ibaka's low blow went unpunished following Game 4.
"It is hard to keep your cool," Rivers said. "You're getting hit — I think at times, illegal hits. I think [Blake's] been taking them all year and he's been doing a great job of [dealing with] it. I don't know if anyone has taken more punishment this year than Blake. In my opinion, some of them have been aboveboard and some of them have not been. People keep getting away with it."
It'll be interesting to see if Tony Brothers, Bennett Salvatore and Tom Washington caught Rivers' comments, and if they call things a little bit tighter earlier in the proceedings on Tuesday.
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