The Thunder has now reached the midway point of its five-game road trip with its second-straight matchup with the Clippers. In the first bout of the mini-series, the Thunder fell 120-106 despite outscoring LA through the final three quarters.
It was ultimately a slow start for the Thunder that determined its fate on Friday. The Clippers outscored the Thunder 36-18 in the first frame and topped out the lead at 27 in the second quarter. From that point, OKC worked to level the playing field. The next three quarters would show OKC outscoring LA by four points.
The second and fourth quarters were dominated by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who finished with a team-high 30 points. The third-year guard dazzled with crafty, methodical attacks to the basket and finished with 18 hard-earned points in the paint. Of SGA’s 30 total points, 24 came from the combined production in paint and the free throw line.
Lu Dort chipped in a solid third quarter performance with 11 points out of the half. After putting up just four points in the first two quarters, the second-year guard would finish the game one-point shy of his third consecutive 20-point performance.
While the Thunder has made a habit of extracting any and all learning opportunities from each game, the team now has a unique opportunity within this shortened NBA season to watch Friday’s game film, take lessons and put them to the test against the very same team.
“That’s our first mentality, just to get better whether we’re playing the same team or not,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “Learn from our mistakes in the last game and adjust to get better every day. And if we do so we’ll be alright.”
“We like any opportunity to learn,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “I think we’ve kind of taken small steps forward when we’ve played a similar opponent in a short turnaround and that’s our challenge again on Sunday is to learn the lessons from this game and carry them into Sunday and see if we can throw a better punch.”
In Friday’s matchup, the Clippers jumped out to a hot start from behind the arc, on par with its league-leading shooting percentage from the 3-point line. However, as the game wore on, the rampant scoring would fade as LA finished the contest shooting just 30 percent from deep.
Headlining the Clippers offense was the duo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard who finished the contest with 29 and 31 points, respectively. Nicolas Batum, who became a new father on Friday with the birth of his daughter, added 14 points and went a perfect 4-for-4 from the 3-point line.
In the paint, Serge Ibaka anchored the Clippers rebounding efforts with 11 boards with the added help of Ivica Zubac who used their size and length to bolster the Clippers edge on the glass. Ibaka also recorded four of the team’s nine offensive rebounds and helped rack up 16 total second-chance points compared to four from the Thunder.
“We can’t just come to accept our limitations, we’ve got to try to find ways to overcome them,” said Daigneault. “The way to do it on the glass against guys like Zubac and Ibaka is to do it with multiple people, get the guards in there and you bite a couple ankles for a loose rebound. Then you live with the ones that you can’t control but we certainly don’t want to live the ones that we can’t.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 23, 2021
On Friday, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 60 points on 20-40 from the field and a perfect 16-16 from the free throw line. Limiting this duo means a 5-man defense working to take away the easy looks and controlling the most controllable aspects on the defensive end such as trips to the charity stripe, easy transition baskets and wide-open shots.
“Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, these guys have been high-level players for a long time, and they’ll continue to be for a long time and so, we get to learn these opponents and being able to turn around and play them again on Sunday gives us an opportunity to carry that over,” said Daigneault.
Stat to Watch
Free Throw – On Friday, the Clippers outscored the Thunder 24-10 at the free throw line as OKC attempted the fewest free throws of the season. When the 3-point bounty began to run dry for LA, the team turned to paint production and attacks to the rim in the hopes of either scoring or drawing a foul.
This disparity at the charity stripe is one that the Thunder will work to even out on Sunday. Sharp, disciplined executions in pick-and-roll coverages while limiting offensive rebounds and put-back opportunities are areas where the Thunder can shave off the Clippers trips to the free throw line.
“Obviously they’re really talented team, they can put you into some tough spots defensively,” said Thunder center Mike Muscala. “But we’ll watch the film, and we’ll try to get those things adjusted.”
OKC’s 3-point defense remained steady against the league leaders in 3-point percentage. On Tuesday, the Thunder held the Clippers to just 30.3 percent from deep – its second-lowest mark of the season. Historically this season, the Thunder have held opponents to the seventh-lowest 3-point percentage in the league while limiting them to just 33.9 attempts per game.