‘Maximize Every Minute’: Thunder Hosts Clippers in Season Finale
Date: Sunday, May 16, 2021
Tip-Off Time: 8 p.m. CT
Television: Bally Sports Oklahoma
Radio: 98.1 FM WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
After facing the No. 1 team in the Western Conference on Friday, the Thunder now closes out the season against the LA Clippers, who, like the Jazz, are among the league leaders in both offensive and defensive rating. With one more game remaining, the Thunder took to the practice floor on Saturday to continue its steady drumbeat of player development while also preparing for one final test against an elite team before the offseason.
“The focus is still the same. Play strong, play together, have fun,” said Thunder rookie Aleksej Pokuševski. “We’ve just got to go out tomorrow and play together, play strong and sprint through the finish line strong.”
In its previous matchup with Utah, the Thunder demonstrated a patient attack around the basket against the Jazz’s unique defensive challenge. OKC’s guards navigated around the 7-foot frame of Rudy Gobert in the lane, keeping their dribble alive and baiting the two-time Defensive Player of the Year away from the basket.
Thunder rookie Théo Maledon led the way as he scored the Thunder’s first seven points on the way to 18 for the night. Off the bench, the Thunder then received a massive boost from wing Svi Mykhailiuk, who led the Thunder in scoring with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Thunder newcomer Gabriel Deck continued to showcase his all-around game as he chipped in a career-high 18 points on 6-of-9 from the field.
The last time the Thunder played the Clippers was back in late-January in a mini-series at Staples Center. While the Thunder made significant strides from game one to game two, much has changed for both squads since those two matchups at LA.
The Clippers have since added point guard Rajon Rondo and forward DeMarcus Cousins to its roster and as the postseason approaches, it is still undetermined who will play for LA in their final game of the regular season. In its loss to Houston on Friday, the Clippers were without All Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but added Serge Ibaka back into its lineup who returned from injury and contributed 15 points in 17 minutes in his first game back.
Headlined offensively by the duo of Leonard and George, who combine for 48.1 points per game, the Clippers lead the league in 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. George leads the effort as he has cashed in four or more 3-pointers in 22 games this season. On Friday, it was sharpshooter Luke Kennard who led LA in scoring as he dropped 23 points in a game-high 41 minutes while Rondo dished out a game-high 13 assists. Defensively, the Clippers hold the sixth best defensive rating as they hold their opponents to just 107.7 points per game – the fourth lowest in the league.
The Thunder streak of 11 consecutive games attempting 21 or more free throws was snapped in its last game against Utah where the squad shot just 16 from the charity stripe while Utah attempted 21. Keep an eye on those free throw numbers again in the game on Sunday as the Clippers lead the league in free throw percentage. Against a team who ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive rating, controlling the controllable aspects of the game will be a key focus for the Thunder and limiting LA’s trips to the free throw line is one of those controllables.
Stat to Watch
Rebounds – With the league’s highest 3-point percentage (41.4) and fifth highest field goal percentage (48.3 percent), the Clippers give up the fewest rebounds to its opponent each night. The Thunder, however, rank fifth in the league in rebounds per night. Winning the rebounding battle against LA will not only mean the Thunder won the battle on the glass, but also forced the Clippers into tough, contested looks.
The Thunder mantra of sprinting through the finish line has resulted in a string of games where OKC has put together strong fourth quarter efforts. After the Thunder’s 27-17 advantage in the fourth frame against Utah, the Thunder has now outscored opponents by an average of 5.3 points over the last four games. As the Thunder gears up for its final game of the season, sprinting through the finish line takes on an even more literal meaning in order to maximize every valuable minute on the floor.
“You only get 72 opportunities in the regular season to improve, to get minutes, to see players and for those guys to go out there and compete,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “So it's really important to us that we maximize every minute. You can't take them for granted. After tomorrow we won't play another game for another five or six months. So we try to take advantage of them and I give our players credit I think that's been the mark of our team all season.”