The Oklahoma City Thunder enter Thursday night with a chance to end the Los Angeles Clippers' season by earning their second road win of the second round in Game 6. For Doc Rivers' crew, the challenge is simple: win and keep playing, or lose and see your season end on your home floor. Here are two big things to keep in mind as you tune in for the latest installment in Round 2's most insane series:
1. Have the Clippers put Game 5 behind them?
You'd certainly forgive the Clippers' coaches, players and fans for having trouble getting past the insane ending to Game 5 that left Doc Rivers livid (and $25,000 poorer) and resulted in a league statement that doubled down on the ultimate correctness of an on-court decision that still clearly seems to be wrong. You can't blame those affected for being angry, even two days later. But it is two days later, and with just 48 minutes separating the Clippers from either a winner-take-all Game 7 or an early start to a long, cruel summer, they need to be able to enter Game 6 with clear heads and laser-like focus on the already-difficult-enough task of forcing a trip back to Oklahoma City.
Rivers' postgame comments — most notably his claim that the officials' decision to award the Thunder possession with 11.3 seconds despite video replays clearly showing the ball going out of bounds off OKC guard Reggie Jackson "could be a series-defining call" — and the subsequent punishment he received for them has been the dominant story of the series since the final buzzer of Game 5, and it's fair to wonder, as Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times did, if the virulence and insistence of Doc's outburst might have left his Clippers a bit off-kilter heading into Game 6. At this point, though, the Clips claim they're accustomed to dealing with and dismissing potential distractions, according to Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job this season and postseason kind of putting things in the past and just moving forward,” Blake Griffin said. “There aren’t a lot of times I’ve heard this team say things where we feel sorry for ourselves. Injuries, whatever it is, the whole Sterling thing, it’s just a part of the game.
“Distractions are a part of life and a part of the game. I think these guys understand you can’t use it as a crutch, enabling it to affect you.”
Clippers swingman Matt Barnes — coming off his best performance of the series in Game 5, scoring 16 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, dishing two assists and blocking two shots while playing strong one-on-one defense on Kevin Durant in a season-high 43 minutes of work — echoed Griffin's sentiments, according to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:
Matt Barnes on G5 loss: "It still hurts, but there's nothing we can do about it now."— Brad Turner (@BA_Turner) May 15, 2014
Barnes:"Everyone is back to normal. We were jokking around before practice."— Brad Turner (@BA_Turner) May 15, 2014
Barnes:"Everyone was one the group text talking last night about what we need to do and we had a great shootaround. We're ready to go."— Brad Turner (@BA_Turner) May 15, 2014
A hot start would certainly help put the notion of a Game 5 hangover to rest, but it wouldn't necessarily be definitive. The Clips have gotten off to hot offensive starts in four of the five games in this series, shooting just under 48 percent from the floor and a scorching 47.4 percent from 3-point land in first quarters against the Thunder. They've outscored Oklahoma City 149-148 in opening frames through five games, even after accounting for their dismal 15-points-in-12-minutes start to Game 4 ... a game, of course, that they won late. We might not know if the Clips have truly shaken the bad vibes from the way Game 5 ended unless we find ourselves in another close-and-late situation again ... which you'd suspect Doc and company would prefer to avoid, provided they're able to carry another double-digit lead into the fourth on Thursday.
2. Have the Thunder put Game 5 behind them?
It's been lost a bit in the afterglow of four minutes of insanity, officiating drama, can't-watch-'em free throws and Chris Paul inexplicably going from Point God to fallen-from-grace, but it's worth remembering that, for 44 minutes, the Thunder got worked on Tuesday.
Non-Russell Westbrook Thunder players had shot a combined 18-for-48 before the final four minutes. Durant had missed 14 of his 17 shots, owing partly to sound defense by Barnes and partly to the familiar brand of OKC stagnation (11 assists on 28 made field goals) that tends to leave the four non-dribbling guys standing around watching, often standing very close to one another, and sometimes even bringing their defenders over to the ball. DeAndre Jordan was a foul-trouble-limited non-factor, but L.A. got productive minutes from Glen Davis, and Blake Griffin finally broke out of the shackles that Serge Ibaka had placed on him for most of the series.
The Clippers had gotten gobs and gobs of 3-point looks, cashing them in at a near-50-percent clip (12-for-25). L.A.'s bellwether wing group of Barnes, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford going a combined 10-for-15 from deep before those final four minutes. It was all working to plan for the Clippers ... until, y'know, it wasn't.
It is, of course, a 48-minute game, and those final four minutes did happen. The Thunder made a remarkable comeback, and there's obviously nothing wrong with coming away from that contest with a series lead and the chance to advance to the conference finals on Thursday. That said, Scott Brooks' club needs to be very conscious of the fact that, in some respects, Game 5 was a gift. (Sure, it was perhaps a re-gift of the present they gave the Clips in Game 4, but that's immaterial.) Things need to change, and to improve, for the Thunder to have the best chance of taking care of business at Staples Center.
They need to clean up the defensive rotations that gave L.A. so many open looks — nearly half the Clippers' Game 5 shot attempts were uncontested, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data — and get back to the brand of perimeter pressure that helped hold the Clips to 19-for-74 shooting (25.7 percent) from Game 2 through Game 4. They need to do more to provide opportunities to create offensive flow and give Durant more room to operate (like, for example, some of what ESPN Insider Amin Elhassan suggested earlier Thursday).
They need to get Reggie Jackson — eight points, seven rebounds, two steals and an assist in 30 minutes off the bench in Game 5, his best all-around game of the series — on the court early and often, and they need to do whatever they have to do limit the opportunities that Griffin and Paul get to beat them. (In this, they might have a surprising ally: Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, who's become a black hole in this series, as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh notes.)
Most of all, though, they need to forget that fortune smiled on them late in Game 5, and play this game as if they're the ones in danger of being eliminated if they drop it. In their opening-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder did their best work with their backs against the wall. It would serve them well to act as if they face the same predicament tonight.
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