The Oklahoma City Thunder survived a grueling seven-game first-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, advancing with a 120-109 win Saturday night. They go on to face the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Semifinals after the Clippers survived their own Game 7 Saturday night 126-121 over the Golden State Warriors. Game 1 is Monday night in Oklahoma City.
This will be the first-ever playoff meeting between the Thunder and the Clippers, whether it be the Seattle SuperSonics, San Diego Clippers or their predecessor, the Buffalo Braves.
Perhaps the key adjustment of the first round was Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks sitting down Thabo Sefolosha for the final two games of the series against Memphis and inserting Caron Butler into the starting lineup.
Butler didn’t have overwhelming stats in his two starts—averaging 11 points and four rebounds and shooting 33.3 percent overall and from 3-point range in 34.8 minutes per game.
But the Thunder were 2-0 with Butler in the starting lineup, winning by an average of 15.5 points per game. Contrast that with the first five games of the series, when Oklahoma City was 2-3 and outscored the Grizzlies by 1.3 points per game.
The Thunder shot 54.9 percent over the final two games of the series, including 45 percent from deep, after shooting 39.7 percent and 28.6 percent from long range in the first five games.
Looking ahead to the matchup with the Clippers, the teams split the season series 2-2, with each team picking up a road win. L.A. won at OKC on Feb. 23, 125-117, and the Thunder won in Los Angeles 107-101 on April 9.
The teams split two games in November, each winning at home.
In those four games, the Thunder were led by—who else?—Kevin Durant. He shot .441/.292/.837 in the four meetings, averaging 32.5 points, eight assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals. Russell Westbrook had a .397/.235/.727 line, averaging 18.5 points, 6.8 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals, as he appeared in all for meetings against the Clippers.
Serge Ibaka was very good against L.A., averaging 16.3 points, five rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 65.9 percent. Butler only played in the April 9 matchup after signing with the Thunder on March 1, playing 20 minutes and scoring four points on 2-of-5 shooting.
Reggie Jackson didn’t have his best performances against the Clippers, averaging 8.5 points in 26 minutes per game with a .353/.364/.750 shooting slash line.
For the Clippers, Blake Griffin averaged 24.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.3 steals on .493/.500/.706 shooting (he was 1-for-2 from 3-point range). Chris Paul played in all four meetings and averaged 18.5 points, 12 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals on .455/.333/.850 shooting and DeAndre Jordan checked in with 11.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals while shooting 64.3 percent overall, but just 40.7 percent (11-for-27) from the foul line.
The potential X-factor for the Clippers is perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, who in three games against the Thunder, lit them up for 24.7 points per game on .551/.455/.769 shooting. On the other hand, J.J. Redick struggled in three games against OKC, shooting 29 percent overall and just 22.2 percent from long range, averaging nine points a game.
Westbrook vs. Paul is always a fun battle to watch, given the contrasting styles of the two players.
The Clippers dominated the glass in the four games, 46.8-41.3, and neither team took particularly good care of the basketball, with the Clippers averaging 16.5 turnovers per game to the Thunder’s 15.3.
Shooting wise, the Thunder were at .466/.318/.771 in the four meetings; the Clippers were at .449/.310/.680.
At the end of the day, this is a matchup between teams who finished with the second- and third-best records in the NBA, respectively (the Thunder were 59-23, the Clippers 57-25). It’s a heavyweight fight and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the series played out like one—expect this to go six or seven games before it’s decided.