May 5th, 2014
Getting Started Strong in Game 1

In the blink of an eye, it’s already time to start a new series.

Round 2 of the NBA Playoffs is here, as the Thunder hosts the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 on Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Momentum between games and series is not a huge factor in the Playoffs, but the rhythm and style of play the Thunder displayed in Games 6 and 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies was certainly trending in the right direction as Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team overcame a 3-2 series deficit to win the series 4-3.

Behind leaders like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder wants to carry over the togetherness, communication and focus it displayed in Round 1 into Round 2. By getting off to a strong start from the opening tip of Game 1 against the Clippers and then valuing every possession throughout the 48 minutes will give the Thunder its best chance to come away victorious tonight.

“We’re always a confident group no matter what,” Durant said. “We respect our opponent, we know how tough it’s going to be. We understand the process of it all. We just have to come out with a sense of urgency. The start of the game is important and we’ll try to sustain it through the rest of the game.”

“We’ve just been watching film, going over their sets, going over their personnel, figuring out what we have to do on offense and just trying to learn their tendencies,” Durant explained.

While the matchup against the Grizzlies created a grind-it-out style for the first five games, the Thunder recognizes that facing the Clippers will be a drastically different type of challenge. Both teams in this series like to play in the open court and create space for their athletes to shine. As a result, the Thunder knows it has to be mindful of how it plays on the offensive end in order to prevent transition chances for the Clippers on the other end of the floor. Proper floor balance, spacing and execution will be critical to limiting turnovers and preventing long rebounds and run-outs.

“First of all, our focus on offense is to try to make sure we get good shots,” forward Serge Ibaka said. “After you get good shots, it’ll help you to get back on defense. We have trouble getting back on defense when we take bad shots or turn the ball over.”

Bigs like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, along with Nick Collison and Steven Adams, will be charged with the task of getting back on defense as quickly as possible, setting up in position early to prevent rim runs by Clippers bigs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Brooks and his staff know that the Clippers thrive and derive energy on their ability to get dunks and high percentage looks at the rim, so limiting those opportunities by doing the work early in the shot clock will be critical to the Thunder’s ability to force Los Angeles into difficult, contested shots.

“The main thing is in transition,” Adams said. “We have to stop them in transition as much as possible. The bigs have to do a good job of getting back. They have athletic bigs who are really fast. They push the ball well too.”

If the Thunder can slow the Clippers down and force them to play in the half court, it will then rely on their five-man, swarming defense to pressure ball handlers like Chris Paul and Darren Collison, along with closing out on shooters like JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford. Impacting the ball at the top of the pick-and-roll will be an integral part of starting each possession strong, as Paul will attempt to manipulate each screen to find a crease into the lane.

Guards like Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher will need to be in constant communication in order to coordinate coverages with one another to prevent the Clippers from getting uncontested looks. If the Thunder can execute on its offensive game plan of sharing the ball and finding easy shots in addition to playing strong transition defense, it will certainly give itself a great chance to win Game 1.

“It’s a team effort,” Sefolosha said. “It’s going to be five against five on the court. We just have to be ready. We have to play pick-and-roll the right way. We have to limit the rolls to the basket, the dunks and the things that get them going and at the same time, stop the three-point shooters.”