Thunder at Clippers Game Preview

Thunder Using Road Trip to Test Itself

No NBA team could account for the way the NBA schedule would shake out this season, but the Thunder came in with a pragmatic approach. Head Coach Scott Brooks urged his crew to make consistent and steady improvement as the season went along in order to be as ready as possible for playoff basketball.

With two consecutive seasons of postseason play under its belt and some NBA veterans mixed into the cast of characters, the young Thunder core has a better sense of what it needed to do during the course of the year as it prepared for May. The next step in the process is the second of five straight road games, in a tilt at the Los Angeles Clippers tonight.

“We’re improving in areas that we talked about from the start of the season,” Brooks said. “We knew we had a tough stretch a couple weeks ago and we know we have a tough stretch now with a lot of road games. Tonight’s game is going to be important to just get off to a good start and play every possession.”

While the Thunder is currently slated to finish in one of the top seeds in the Western Conference, the Clippers aren’t far behind, sitting on the fourth seed out West. This is yet another game for the Thunder against a playoff-caliber foe within the last three weeks, in which the Thunder has played some of the best teams from both conferences. Those clashes are seen by Brooks as tune-ups for his squad to figure out what is working and where to tweak.

“It’s so important to play against good teams late in the season,” Brooks said. “When you’re playing against the Memphises, the Miamis, the Chicagoes and the Clippers and the Lakers like we’ve done the last two or three weeks, you get better. Even on some losses you get better because you can really focus on the areas that you have to improve on, because those are the areas that are going to be important in the Playoffs.”

One of the players most in tune with Brooks and the Thunder’s gradual improvement model is forward Kevin Durant, who has noticed some of the finer points within his All-Star game that can be adjusted. In a win over the Sacramento Kings on Friday Durant reeled off 29 points in only 30 minutes of action. 24 hours later Durant went off for 43 points, including 20 in the fourth quarter, to help beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night.

“These last few games I’ve been playing a lot stronger, posting up deeper, just trying to play harder on the offensive end,” Durant said. “Hopefully I make some shots tonight and we’ll see what happens.”

Making shots will be a necessary aspect of the Thunder’s offensive game, which is shooting 47.4 percent from the floor, tied for the best in the NBA. In fact, the Thunder’s offense also ranks second in points per game at 103.1 and second in effective field goal percentage, which includes three-point and free throw percentages.

While the Thunder knows its offense has the chance to be explosive, the key every night for Brooks is on the defensive end. As the Thunder learned in its last meeting with the Clippers, a great defensive effort can give a team life even when the offense is stagnant. The defensive intensity and willingness to play at a full level of focus on each individual possession will be critical tonight.

“You have to play every possession and you have to play the entire shot clock,” Brooks said. “Chris Paul is one of the best at manipulating screens and you think that you have them stopped and there are six seconds left on the shot clock, and he finds another option that you didn’t think that you had to cover. You have to play the entire possession.”

The Thunder shot only 41 percent from the field at home against the Clippers in a 100-98 loss last Wednesday, and after the game Brooks and his squad said that tighter defense in the pick-and-roll might have created a different outcome. At shoot-around earlier this afternoon, Durant described the lesson learned from last week’s loss, which the Thunder will use tonight and moving forward into the Playoffs.

“We just need to play with a little bit more force on defense and offense,” Durant said. “If we come out and execute and take good shots and play together, we’ll be alright.”