Driving lanes were clogged and every scoring run by the Thunder was answered in commanding fashion by the Clippers. Despite fighting to bring the game to within single digits on multiple occasions, the Clippers answered with a rally to leave OKC behind.
Aside from the Clippers shooting an efficient 56 percent from inside the arc, the Thunder’s biggest hurdle on Thursday came in the form of finding a way to score consistently amid the length and physicality of Los Angeles’s defense at every position.
Initially, the Thunder struggled to finish at the rim in the opening quarter. In the first six minutes the Thunder only sank one of its six attempts in the paint. The Clippers rolled offensively for a 13-5 run to get out to an early double-digit lead thanks to opportunities in the open floor in transition. Couple the transition points with a 63 percent shooting clip from the field and Los Angeles was able to notch 38 points in the first frame.
The Thunder dug in its heels on the transition front eliminating any points on the break in the second quarter. Offensively, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander helped to bring the game back to within single digits behind two straight possessions with drained floaters. Defensively, the Thunder revved up the intensity. Potential isolation plays from Kawhi Leonard on the block ignited help from the opposite corners to show him a crowd. As a result, the Thunder forced multiple empty plays from the Clippers which opened the door for a Thunder run while also holding the Clippers to only 21 points in the second quarter.
“The difference was the transition,” said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. “I think in the second quarter they had no transition points and the game got blocked up into the half court and we’ve been a really good defensive team in the half court for most of the year. They obviously are a hard team to guard, but they had 21 points in the second quarter, so it eliminated some of those transition points.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 4, 2020
The Clippers quickly responded as the Thunder nearly regained a lead. A 16-0 run put the Clippers back in commanding control. Thunder turnovers, fouls and missed shots early in the shot clock sent the Clippers off to the races for easy points in transition. By halftime, the Thunder trailed 47-59.
To start the third, it was Paul George who took the reins for the Clippers. He rattled off eight points in the first five minutes of the third frame. Nerlens Noel sparked the Thunder’s answer. After a floater from a Luguentz Dort pass, Noel stole a pass at the top of the key and took off down the floor for another Thunder offensive possession that resulted in another Noel floater. Chris Paul added a 3-pointer to cap the 7-0 run forcing Doc Rivers to call a timeout.
Once again, the Clippers answered the Thunder’s surge. This time however, the Thunder was not able to string together enough quality possessions on either end to respond. As a result, the Thunder offense stagnated going up against a set Clippers defense who are fifth in the league in defensive rating. Passing lanes were clogged, driving gaps were swallowed and the Thunder’s chances at a comeback dwindled as it continued to struggle from behind the arc and at the free throw line while the Clippers lead ballooned to 20.
“When you’re playing against top five offenses, it’s really, really hard against the set defense to get shots or quality shots on the first side,” said Donovan. “You’ve got to have multiple changes of sides and we’ve been really, really good all year long of doing that. There are times I think that we got kind of swallowed up so to speak with their size.”
There were several moments in the game where the Thunder was able to bring the Clippers’ lead to within single digits. The final instance occurred with just under six minutes to go in the third quarter where the Thunder brought the score to 60-69 forcing the Clippers to call a timeout to recalibrate. From that point, the Thunder only scored one point until the 3:36 mark. On the other end, the Clippers erupted for 10 points scoring on four straight possessions to put the lead back to 18 points.
“…We just couldn’t string enough stops together, nor enough really good possessions where we could get on an offensive run,” said Donovan. “We were never really able to score the ball at the rate necessary and give them credit, they’re obviously a really, really good defensive team and they’ve got really good size, length and athleticism. They’re physical so they make it certainly very difficult so the best thing you can do is try to force missed shots and get out in transition and play that way.”
With one minute remaining in the first quarter, the Thunder looked to capitalize on a slight burst in scoring headlined by Dennis Schröder who tallied five quick points. On the other end, a pass intended for Patrick Patterson was intercepted by Chris Paul on the baseline who zipped it ahead to Luguentz Dort who had sprinted ahead of the pack after seeing the theft. Dort barreled down the floor with Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell ahead of him. The rookie guard euro stepped to the right side of the basket and with his right hand, flipped the ball back over his left shoulder while taking contact.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 4, 2020
Several slight statistical advantages added up in the Clippers favor on Tuesday. One of which appeared at the free throw line uncharacteristically from the Thunder who prides itself on winning the free throw battle each night. Both teams shot 26 total free throws on Tuesday. However, while the Clippers sank 22, the Thunder only made 17 resulting in a 65.5 percent clip, well below its 80 percent average.
“I think the 3-point shooting tonight coupled with the free throw line made it a really, really difficult scoring night for us,” said Donovan. “I think if we would have shot closer to our average from the free throw line and/ or would’ve shot a little bit better from the three point line we probably would’ve scored quite a few more points. Not saying it would’ve been our average, but it would’ve been a lot better than what it was.”
“Play better. We’re playing against some of the best teams in the league. We would’ve liked to win, but we just keep moving.” –Chris Paul
“We’ve been here before. Maybe not like this particular situation but in terms of problem solving, there are a lot of people that want to do the right thing and that’s all we really need. Players wanting to do the right thing and do what’s best for the team, that’s a good mindset to have.” –Steven Adams
The Thunder have little time to dwell as it looks to wrap up its second consecutive road-home back-to-back in Detroit on Wednesday. Wednesday’s game will be the first in a three-game Eastern Conference road trip which includes trips to New York and Boston.