Thunder vs. Clipper Game Preview

Pick and Roll Defense, Offensive Balance Crucial Against Clippers

Like a cumulative test right before exam time, tonight is a perfect opportunity for Head Coach Scott Brooks to hammer home some of his biggest teaching points from the entire season heading into the final stretch before the playoffs. The Thunder faces a Los Angeles Clippers team that will test its pick-and-roll defense, in addition to forcing it to be multi-dimensional on offense, both focal points for the Thunder all season long.

With an All-Star point guard in Chris Paul, who Brooks says can manipulate every screen to his advantage, it will be up to perimeter defenders like Russell Westbrook and James Harden to contain the ball on those pick-and-roll plays.

“That’s the majority of the game right there, containing Chris Paul, not letting his bigs get lobs and things like that and in transition getting spectacular plays,” Harden said. “It’s going to be a tough battle, not only for our point guard, but our bigs, stopping them. And our wings, they have a couple good shooters over there, so it’s going to be a tough defensive effort for all of us tonight.”

The Clippers often utilizes hyper-athletic big men DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to sky high and grab passes from Paul off pick and rolls. Using that high-flying leaping ability, those emphatic finishes can swing the momentum of games, which is why the Thunder must make Paul see a crowd everywhere he goes tonight, in addition to closing off lanes to the basket and putting a body on big men.

On top of that, the Thunder will have to execute on offense as well. While Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka’s defense will be essential to locking down both the perimeter shooters and the big men down low, they’ll also be called upon to continue chipping in on offense. Ibaka has had 23 double-digit scoring outbursts this season, and always adds an extra dimension to the offense, as does Sefolosha when he’s hitting corner threes.

“They find their role and niche during the game,” Brooks said. “Serge provides offensive rebounding, provides a knock-down 15 foot jump shooter and he runs the floor. Thabo, his offense doesn’t get a lot of opportunities, but when he does, we seem to really click better offensively. He’s shooting the ball well from three. He’s one of our best cutters and a lot of times he doesn’t get the ball when he cuts, but he draws the extra defender and it opens up our perimeter guys.”

In fact, the Thunder has seemed to make it a point of emphasis to get Sefolosha the ball early on in the game in order to get him into the flow of the offense. In two out of last three contests, Sefolosha has scored within the first two minutes of the game, whether it be creating his own offense off a drive or hanging on the perimeter to wait for a drive and kick pass from Westbrook or Kevin Durant. Harden, however, says there is another way that Sefolosha has gotten himself involved on offense lately, amplifying the production the team has gotten from its role players.

“I think these last couple games, Thabo has done a great job of creating offense with his defense,” Harden said. “Serge is doing a great job as always with his blocked shots then hitting that 15-footer and offensive rebounding. Perk finishing around the basket, we’re getting some key baskets. Nick is scoring a little bit more, so I think that is going to help us going into the playoffs so that everybody is comfortable shooting that open shot.”

As the Thunder continues to develop and grow, it will be the contributions from the players known more for defense and rebounding like Sefolosha, Perkins, Ibaka and Collison that can elevate the team to the next level. It’s pretty apparent what type of offense the Thunder can expect from Durant, Westbrook and Harden, but if players like Collison, who normally helps set up offense for others can also be a factor, it can put defenses in a difficult spot.

“It’s weird, I don’t even follow Nick’s game offensively other than when he makes plays for James (Harden) because he has a great feel for what we do with that second group,” Brooks said. “He can shoot. Nick was a big time scorer in college. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle with all our scorers, but he can finish around the rim, he does a great job of catching passes around the basket and finishing and he can hit the 18-to-19 foot jump shot.”

In fact, Collison has averaged 5.8 points on 72 percent shooting and 6.6 rebounds per game over the last five games in only 19.2 minutes per contest. Harden says that now he is looking for Collison off of their patented two-man game in that second unit, meaning Collison is getting more opportunities to finish around the basket and hit open 15-footers. That type of efficient offense is typical of Collison and Harden, but if one of the Thunder’s three primary scorers is having an off night, the extra contributions from players like Collison, Ibaka or Sefolosha can be the difference between a win and a loss.