POSTED: May 4, 2014 12:09 PM ET
Buckle up, this is going to be fun.
A group of the most talented young players in the league today will convene for Game 1 in Oklahoma City on Monday night. The dean is Los Angeles Clippers All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who brings Lob City pals Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into Loud City to face likely league MVP Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
These two teams split four games during the regular season, two way back in November and each won on the other's floor after the All-Star break.
On paper, both teams appear evenly matched. The Clippers bring the regular-season's most potent offense (109.4 points per 100 possessions) and a defense that ranked seventh (102.1 points per 100 possessions). Oklahoma City ranked seventh in offensive rating (108.1) and fifth in defensive ranking (101.0).
Inside Look at Clippers-Thunder
On the floor, the Clippers might face the stiffer challenge. They face the unenviable task of matching up with the height and diverse attack of Durant and the speed and power of Westbrook.
Both teams are coming off emotionally and physically taxing seven-game series that wrapped up Saturday night. Neither has much time to regroup, but the Game 1 advantage has to go to OKC since it won at home and will stay there. The Clippers will fly into town Sunday.
While nothing can compare with the intense nature of the Donald Sterling disaster and the emotional ringer it put Doc Rivers' team through, the Thunder experienced their own early adversity against a Grizzlies team that took them out of their element enough for the Oklahoma City newspaper prior to Game 6 to label Durant, "Mr. Unreliable."
This has all the makings of a classic series. So buckle up.
1. How hurt is Chris Paul? Judging by his Game 7 performance against the Warriors (22 points, 14 assists, four steals in 42 minutes) not so much. Still, Paul has been troubled by a sore right hamstring and he also has a sprained left thumb. You've probably also noticed the shoulder padding under his right sleeve. He separated his shoulder on Jan. 3 in Dallas, missed six weeks and still isn't completely healed.
2. Can Russell Westbrook consistently play aggressively without being out of control as he did in Games 6 and 7 against Memphis? Probably not, but Oklahoma City has plenty of experience watching Westbrook veer off course, meaning jacking unwise shots or turning it over on reckless drives to the basket. They'll take the bad with the good because the good can be unbelievable. His size, power and speed will be increasingly difficult for Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford or anyone else asked to take him.
3. Will Scott Brooks stick with Caron Butler as the starting shooting guard over defense-minded Thabo Sefolosha? It's hard to see Brooks go back after winning Games 6 and 7 with the lineup shakeup. Butler is a bigger 3-point threat and helps to space the floor better than Sefolosha, who has gone from starter to consecutive DNP-CDs. When Butler signed in early March, Sefolosha was injured and Butler stepped right into about 30 mpg. That probably won't change now that Butler is going against his former team.
4. Has Kevin Durant snapped out of his shooting slump? No one's happier to be rid of the Memphis Grizzlies and Tony Allen than Durant. Memphis is the one team that's consistently shown the ability to attack Durant individually and with traps and frustrate the heck out of him. Durant's been awful from the beyond the arc really since the end of March and was 12-for-48 in the first six games against Memphis. He was 5-for-5 in Game 7 and 12-for-18 overall.
5. Will Blake Griffin be the difference-maker? Griffin faces a difficult matchup against Thunder forward-center Serge Ibaka, who has the size, the foot speed and the skill to force Griffin into tougher jump shots and out of the paint. These two have a bit of a history so expect a physical and at times chippy matchup. But if Griffin can get the best of Ibaka, it would be a significant factor toward the Clippers advancing to the West finals.
Durant certainly takes the handle throughout a game, but Westbrook's the man who sets the pace, and when he looks to get his teammates involved it can make all the difference between a fluid offense that's difficult to guard and a stagnant one that typically sets up the opponent for transition baskets through poor shot selection or turnovers. Westbrook had 16 assists in Game 7 against Memphis and still had 27 shots on an economical number of shots. That's the winning ticket. The question is how often he can do it.
Durant averaged 32.5 points in the four regular-season games against L.A., but he shot just 44.1 percent overall and 29.2 percent from beyond the arc. He's also been a playmaker, though, averaging 8.0 apg.
The Clippers have several issues defensively. They don't have a prototypical athletic wing to chase Durant, and Danny Granger hasn't been able to do much, so that duty will fall heavily to Matt Barnes. Paul, with his hamstring injury, and J.J. Redick, are at a severe disadvantage against Westbrook. They'll need plenty of help from rim protector DeAndre Jordan to cut off the Thunder's rim runners.
Chris Paul is going to see a lot of the younger, stronger and healthier Westbrook, a completely different animal from Paul's more finesse-oriented first-round opponent Stephen Curry. Griffin's repertoire continued to expand this season, but again he goes up against the chiseled Ibaka. Still, Griffin has averaged 24.8 ppg on 49.3 percent shooting with 10.3 rpg this season against OKC. Two keys will be how involved center DeAndre Jordan can make himself on the offensive end and if Redick, Jamal Crawford and Barnes can light it up from 3.
Oklahoma City is long and quick on the perimeter and can cause all kinds of problems. Paul rarely commits turnovers so this should be an interesting battle. Kendrick Perkins finds a place in this season, using his big body to lean on and agitate Jordan. Same goes for rookie center Steven Adams. The Thunder averaged more than seven blocks a game against Memphis, a feat that will be harder to complete against the Clippers' high-risers.
Nobody scored more points in crunch time that Durant. Could OKC look elsewhere in end-of-game situations? Well, we did see Brooks use Durant as a decoy in the final six minutes of Game 5, but don't expect that to repeat itself. Down the wire, Durant will have the all in his hands.
Paul is an excellent pressure 3-point shooter, using his deceptive dribbling and step-back to create space and launch. Griffin is always a possibility, but don't sleep on Jamal Crawford, who can get a shot up from just about anywhere on the floor.
The Thunder and Clippers, respectively, were hit with the most technical fouls during the regular season, so the team that keeps its cool during chippy periods of play or when they feel the refs aren't doing them any favors, could have an edge, especially if things get heated late. Doc Rivers has a fourth-quarter rule in which players are supposed to know they don't do anything that could earn a T.
Count Clippers guard-forward Matt Barnes as a wild card, both for his hot-headedness (which actually has improved) and his streakiness from 3-point land. Barnes made six 3s and scored 24 points in the Clippers' February win at OKC.
For the Thunder, reserve point guard Reggie Jackson is capable of putting up big numbers, as he showed with 32 in Game 4 at Memphis, a win that likely saved the Thunder's season.
Ultimately, the Clippers will wear down trying to contain Durant and Westbrook throughout an entire series. Thunder in 6.