The Oklahoma City Thunder has been a good measuring stick for the Clippers the past two years. In the final game of the 2009 campaign, the 23-win Thunder team hammered the Clippers at the Staples Center by 41 points, 126-85. In a nightmare season, marred by injuries, the 2009 Clippers walked off the floor for the final time to a chorus of boos from their usually forgiving fans. Though both franchises were destined for the lottery, the Thunder finished the season on a resoundingly strong note, and a clear message was sent to the league that their talented young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green would be a team to contend with in the future. In a way, the Clippers and Thunder were as two trains passing in the night, one franchise bound for future glory, and the other was wracked with familiar questions and doubt.
The summer of 2009 changed the Clippers fortune, when they unexpectedly won the lottery and the rights to Blake Griffin. Then, Mike Dunleavy, wearing his general manager cap, orchestrated some canny moves to bolster the bench by turning Zach Randolph’s bloated contract into Craig Smith and Sebastian Telfair, as well as the acquisition of Rasual Butler. Optimism was restored to Clippersland, and there was hope that the now rejuvenated, deep and athletic Clippers squad can make a run for the final playoff spot in the West. As the 2009-10 campaign began, many observers saw the Clippers and Thunder on equal footing. Both teams were on the rise, and has a chance to compete in the difficult Western Conference.
The Clippers and Thunder met earlier in November, playing two games in a span of five days. Each team won on the other’s floor, and both contests were decided in the fourth quarter. Though the Thunder has proven themselves as contenders in the West and had a better record, the Clippers clawed back from their tough earlier schedule and proved their mettle by beating their Western Conference rival in a hard fought game in Oklahoma City. It was a much needed victory, a type of win that playoff teams squeak out during the course of a season. But four months later, that win in Oklahoma City has remained the Clippers best road victory against a playoff bound team in the 2010 campaign. And when the two teams met again on this early March night, the fate of both franchises has already been defined. And from the first few minutes on, the Thunder proved that, without a doubt, they are a team to be reckon with, come playoff time. While the Clippers are once again, bound for the lottery, the fate of their franchise, their coach, and their free agents, unclear.
The Thunder asserted themselves on the defensive end very early on. Coming in to the game, it was clear that the Clippers have an edge inside, and it was as if Oklahoma City almost conceded one on one coverage to the Clippers big men. Their perimeter defense was suffocating however, and the Clippers perimeter players could not get an open look against the Thunder’s taller and more athletic counterparts. Durant, while not known as a defensive stopper coming into the NBA, has groomed himself into a serviceable defensive player. Green, Westbrook, Harden, Collison, and Serge Ibaka all played very physical and tough team defense, their defensive rotations were quick and aggressive. They concede nothing and outmuscle the smaller Clippers wing players. They would get 13 steals and block 11 Clippers shots during the game and hold the Clippers to 37 percent shooting. Asides from Smith, no Clippers player was able to hit even half their shots.
Durant is a burgeoning offensive star who’s about to cross that rare threshold into superstardom. But it is clear that the Thunder’s calling card is their rangy, athletic, perimeter defense. It is the mark of a good, young team, one that the Western Conference powers will be loathed to face come the final weeks of April. They suffocated Baron Davis early on. With the Clippers offense stagnating after a promising early start, they trapped Baron in the corner and blocked his desperation three. As if to redeem himself, Baron came right back down the floor and clanged off another three at the six minute mark. Oklahoma City capitalized on every Clippers missed shots and boneheaded miscues early on and ran off 12 points in row. By the time Craig Smith was brought into the game for Drew Gooden, the score was 18-6, Oklahoma City. The burly Smith made his presence felt right away, scoring on his first touch and drew a foul. All night long, the Clippers would crawl their way back to eight points, to six points, only to have Oklahoma City pull away again. Never once did it feel that the Clippers were going to legitimately mount a charge against this Thunder team. Near the end of the first quarter, Durant made a beautiful jab step against Rasual and blew by him for a thunderous dunk. It is hard to blame Rasual, as Durant has been hitting step back fifteen footers against him early on, racking up 15 points in the first quarter alone. It was a clear case of going up against someone who is taller, more skilled, and more athletic, someone who is on a completely different level as a player. In a way, the dream that the Clippers have of being on the same level as this young Thunder squad was revealed to be a fantasy tonight. As the 2010 season slowly winds to a close, the Thunder has proven to be a clearly a superior team, and a legitimate playoff squad.
That the Clippers somehow closed the 10-12 point lead to four points in the third quarter at the four minute mark is a bit of a surprise. Rasual Butler got hot in the third, abetted by some beautiful drive and dish by Eric Gordon, and hit some three pointers to pull the Clippers to 68-64. During one sequence at the 6:27 mark, Drew Gooden set a solid pick and freed Eric for a drive into the lane, as the defenders converge on Eric, he kicked the ball out to a wide open Butler for a 3. It was a solid play, executed by a fundamentally sound basketball player from Kansas who knows how to set picks. At the 5:50 mark, the same play was ran but with Kaman instead of Gooden. This time, Kaman rolled to the basket too early, hoping to get the ball, and the play broke down as Eric was never able to find daylight. It was another opportunity lost, and the Thunder once again pulled away convincingly as James Harden was brought back in. They would score the next eight points during the next three minutes and re-establish their lead back to 76-64 as the third quarter drew to a close.
With Craig Smith picking up his fifth foul at the 11:43 mark of the fourth, the Clippers most effective offensive weapon on this night was taken out of the game. After that, the Thunder re-asserted their dominance and slowly put the game out of reach. Harden made a smart, aggressive move to the hoop and put his body into Kaman’s chest, drawing a foul and putting the Thunder up by 15 at the 9:57 mark. Gordon would hit a three and made a tough layup to pull the Clippers to within 11 but that would be as close as they get the rest of the way. The final score of 104-87 was not quite emblematic of the game, as the Clippers were within striking distance for most of the night. However, one never got the sense that it was all that close, that the Clippers were capable of overtaking the Thunder on this night, or this season. As the final stretch run of the 2010 season begins, it is clear that the path of the two franchise has diverged, as clear as that last game of the 2009 campaign. Thinking back on the exuberance from the Oklahoma City Thunder players on that April night of last year, when it seems that they enjoyed their time on the court, and didn’t want to go home for the off-season, it reminded me of another Clippers squad from the 2000-2001 campaign. The season was lost a long time ago, but their joy was infectious as they blew away a 51-win Phoenix team on their final home game of the season. Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson, and Lamar Odom celebrated on top of the scorer’s table and thanked their fans. They milled around the Staples Center floor afterwards, not wanting to leave, wanting to play on, as if the promise of their vast potential shimmered seductively before their eyes, as fragile as a mirage; and as if by leaving, they might forsake that beautiful synchronicity which they had miraculously achieved on that night, and might never attain again. Yet the promise of next season burned brightly that evening, and Clippers fans left the Staples Center yearning for the 2001-2002 season to begin. It is perhaps too much to hope for with this 2009-10 Clippers squad, and one cannot help but admire this young Thunder team with a bit of jealousy and perhaps yearn for what could have been.