The Los Angeles Clippers have been touted by some as the favorite in the Western Conference. Reaching those lofty expectations would mean overtaking the Oklahoma City Thunder, a tall order in itself.
After being swept in last season's series, the Clippers hope to be up to the challenge Wednesday night when they host the Thunder for the first of four meetings.
Los Angeles (5-3) finished fourth in the conference last season at 56-26, while Oklahoma City (5-1) claimed the top seed with a 60-22 record. Those positions would have been reversed had a three-game season sweep gone in favor of the Clippers. Of their last 36 regular-season home games, two of the six losses have been to the Thunder.
A better performance from Chris Paul would likely help. He averaged 17.5 points and shot 10 for 35 (28.6 percent) while playing in two of the matchups. Russell Westbrook outplayed him, averaging 26.0 points and shooting 46.2 percent from 3-point range in three meetings.
Paul is off to a good start, becoming the first player since John Stockton in 1991-92 to record a points-assist double-double in each of his first eight games. However, his limited contributions against the Thunder last season, combined with Kevin Durant's stellar performances - he averaged 34.0 points - proved too much for Los Angeles to overcome in the series.
Durant largely saved the day in a 106-105 home overtime win over Washington on Sunday. Oklahoma City overcame a 12-point deficit in the final quarter with Durant's 3-pointer with 13.6 seconds remaining forcing the extra period.
The Thunder had to complete their comeback without Westbrook, who received his second technical of the game following a shoving match with Nene late in regulation.
While Westbrook struggled, finishing 4 of 16 from the floor for 13 points with five turnovers, Durant had 33 points, 12 rebounds and six assists as Oklahoma City won its fourth straight.
The Thunder are averaging 31.0 points in the fourth quarter during that win streak.
"That was definitely a resilient win," coach Scott Brooks said. "It was that never-quit mentality that we've always believed in and that's what happened tonight. We just battled and battled and battled and gave ourselves a chance to win down the stretch."
The Clippers are also coming off a narrow victory, 109-107 over Minnesota on Monday. Blake Griffin had 25 points and 10 rebounds for Los Angeles, which held on to win only after the Timberwolves missed two tip-ins in the final seconds.
Four of Los Angeles' last six games have been decided by single digits.
"This year is one of the most competitive years I've seen for a while," Clippers center Ryan Hollins said. "Every single night you're playing a big matchup."
Los Angeles had its best defensive performance in terms of field-goal percentage, holding Minnesota to 41.7, after opponents came in hitting 48.5 percent. But the Clippers also gave up 16 offensive rebounds and are surrendering 11.5 per game.
"We're almost there (defensively)," said Paul, who had 21 points and 11 assists. "A lot of times tonight we were in the right spots. But I think we've still got to get better rebounding and that's collectively. We can't rely on Blake and D.J. (DeAndre Jordan) to get all the rebounds. We've got to get in there and collectively rebound."
Oklahoma City is one of the league's best in terms of offensive rebounds with 12.8 per game, including 3.5 from Serge Ibaka. Ibaka recorded a season-high 25 points along with 12 rebounds Sunday.
Jordan has posted three straight double-doubles and is averaging 15.5 rebounds in his last four games.
Thunder forward Nick Collison is day-to-day after missing the game versus Washington with a bruised hip.