Game 1 of the Oklahoma City Thunder's second-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers was a nightmare for the West's No. 2 seed. By contrast, Wednesday's Game 2 resembled something close to an ideal scenario.
In a reverse of their series-opening loss, the Thunder got off to a strong start, saw their stars play to their full abilities and controlled the game throughout for a 112-101 win. The series now heads to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4 with a host of questions about which team has the advantage.
The Clippers scored at a masterful clip in Game 1, but the Thunder returned the favor in this one. Shooting 16 of 25 from the field overall, OKC scored 37 points in the first quarter. Los Angeles wasn't far off — their 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc wasn't bad by any stretch — but they just couldn't match the amazing production of their opponents. Kevin Durant, who received his MVP award before the game, had 17 on 7-of-11 shooting, just one point off his career playoff high for a quarter. But it was Russell Westbrook who set the tone, attacking early and often for 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting. If the Thunder looked a little sluggish and prone to settling for tough shots in Game 1, they got off to a fast start in Game 2 by asserting themselves.
The second quarter appeared to herald a Clippers resurgence. After getting the lead to 41-31, the Thunder allowed a 21-10 run over more than five minutes of play to give the Clippers a one-point lead with 4:07 on the clock. That stretch seemed to indicate what most observers had already assumed — namely, that these offenses are both so explosive any lead can be reversed or cut into relatively quickly. If nothing else, the viewing audience should expect regular runs.
While the Clippers' second-quarter comeback appeared to signal a long road ahead for the hosts, a brief 5-0 mini-run to close the first half gave the Thunder breathing room and a 61-56 lead heading into the break. The two teams played relatively evenly for the majority of the third quarter, but the Thunder managed to pull away before the start of the fourth. After a J.J. Redick jumper cut the deficit to 82-73, the Thunder went on a 12-2 run to make any L.A. comeback unlikely. The Clippers never got the margin under 12 points until the 2:06 mark of the final quarter — effectively after they'd conceded. Despite the score never getting truly out of hand, this result was not in doubt for the entire fourth quarter.
The Thunder won in their usual fashion. Durant was electric, putting up 32 points (10-of-22 FG), 12 rebounds, nine assists and two steals for his most complete game of the postseason so far. Westbrook, however, was arguably the better player, finishing with 31 points (13-of-22 FG), 10 rebounds (six offensive), 10 assists and three steals in 41 minutes. That line marks his third triple-double in nine games these playoffs, although the final assist came on a very generous decision from the scorer that will likely be rescinded upon further examination. Take a look at the play below:
When Durant and Westbrook play this well, the Thunder only need minor statistical contributions from the rest of the team to win. They got them in Game 2 — Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha had 14 points apiece on 6-of-10 and 6-of-9 shooting, respectively, while Kendrick Perkins put forth eight points and nine rebounds. NBA teams usually cannot win titles without big games from role players, but the Thunder's two stars can be so dominant that even the threat of other players scoring can do enough to lift the team to victory.
The Clippers' offense did not perform to its full capacity, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both coming through with below-average games, but it was their defense that proved most problematic in this loss. Although the team's hot shooting understandably deserved the most attention in Game 1, the interior defense arguably played just as big a role. In Game 2, though, the Thunder got far too many open looks in the paint. After serving as such a dominant force in the first-round series against the Golden State Warriors, center DeAndre Jordan had a minimal impact. When Jordan doesn't control the paint like an All-Defensive talent, the Clippers have a tough time, and that proved to be the case. On top of all that, they didn't finish off plays, conceding 15 offensive rebounds.
We've seen both teams play at their best and near their worst in these first two games, to the point where it's difficult to predict the shape of the rest of the series. The Clippers have a clear advantage after their road split, but the Thunder took two of three road games against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and could easily steal Game 3, Game 4, or both. At an admittedly early stage, this series looks like the most fascinating of the conference semifinals.
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