As we enter the second round of the NBA playoffs, one could make the case for any of the four series as the most compelling in the Conference Semifinals. The Nets swept the Heat in the regular season, can they continue to dominate the Heat in the playoffs? The Pacers struggled to defeat the lowly Hawks in the first round, can they bounce back? The Blazers knocked off the Rockets in impressive fashion, can they do the same to the top seeded Spurs?
With all of that said, the series I think will be the most exciting is the Clippers vs. Thunder. It will showcase two of the most prolific offensive teams in the NBA - the Clippers led the league in points per game during the regular season while the Thunder were fifth - and is absolutely dripping with star power. The Thunder feature the (probable) MVP of the league, Kevin Durant, and one of the most polarizing young stars in the league in Russell Westbrook. Similarly, the L.A. is led by a perennial All-NBA point guard, Chris Paul, and an athletic freak who has emerged as an elite NBA player in Blake Griffin.
Considering the group of superstars I just listed, the fact that this series features four players who rank in the top 10 in nERD comes as no surprise to anyone. What is surprising, however, is that only three of the four players mentioned above are included in that list. As good as Westbrook is, his high turnover rate coupled with the amount of time he missed due to injury negatively impacted his nERD score quite a bit. If Russ isn't the fourth player in the top ten then who is, you ask? The answer: DeAndre Jordan.
Although he doesn't have the massive endorsement deals like Durant, Westbrook, Paul and Griffin, Jordan has been one of the most dominant players in the NBA this season. The Clippers' center led the league in both shooting percentage (67.6%) and rebounding (13.6 per game) this season while racking up the 10th-best nERD score in the league at 11.0. DJ's defensive prowess and offensive efficiency was a huge part of the Clippers' success all season and was a major factor in L.A.'s opening round matchup with the Warriors. Here's a closer look at DeAndre's impact on the Clippers' first-round victory, and why he could be the x-factor against the Thunder.
Exploiting a Mismatch
With defensive player of the year candidate Andrew Bogut out for the season with a rib injury, the Warriors started their series against the Clippers with Jermaine O'Neal starting at center. O'Neal, who was simply overmatched by Jordan's athleticism, struggled early and was banged up towards the end of of the series, forcing Draymond Green into a much larger role. Although Green played some of the best ball of his career, inserting him into the starting lineup forced David Lee to slide over to center and try to guard Jordan, who was able to overpower the undersized Lee.
Despite only being the Clippers' fifth leading scorer in the opening round, the results of this mismatch were staggering. DJ put on an absolute show against Golden State, leading all qualifying players in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage through the first round of the playoffs.
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Jordan's ability to protect the rim and rebound the basketball were one of the main reasons why the Clippers were able to defeat the Warriors. In L.A.'s four first-round wins, DeAndre averaged 4.25 blocks and a ridiculous 16.75 boards, including two games with 18 and one with 22 rebounds. If Jordan can continue to block shots and dominate the glass the way he did in the first round, the Thunder could be in for a long series in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The Matchup to Watch: Jordan vs. Adams
Much like Jermaine O'Neal, Kendrick Perkins has really shown his age this season. Perkins has never been an offensive force, but his presence as a defensive enforcer has been extremely valuable to the Thunder in years past. Unfortunately, due to his declining athleticism, Perk is no where near the defender he used to be. His lack of explosion and quickness has left him to struggle against the elite athletes at the center position, and DeAndre is the elite of the elite.
In previous seasons, Nick Collison spent a lot of time guarding opposing centers in relief of Perkins. Although, much like Perkins, Collison lacks top-notch athleticism, his excellent technique and high motor have made him a tremendous defensive asset for Oklahoma City. With that said, at 33 years old, Collison posted career lows in minutes (16.7), points (4.2), rebounds (3.6) and blocks (0.3) per game, as well as his career second-worst Player Efficiency Rating (11.8). Additionally, Jordan's unique combination of power and quickness has given Collison fits in the past. In the Thunder's four games against the Clippers this season, Collison played the majority of minutes at center only once. In that game, DJ dropped 18 points and 12 boards in a 125-117 Clippers victory.
With Perkins and Collison both on the decline, the door is open for rookie Steven Adams to play a major role for Oklahoma City. At 7'0", 255 pounds, Adams not only has the size to match Jordan, but unlike Perkins and Collison, he has the offensive talent to make DeAndre work on the defensive end. With Jordan forced to keep a close watch on Adams, guys like Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson will be able to attack the paint with significantly less fear of getting denied at the rim.
Adams saw very limited minutes early in Oklahoma City's first round series with Memphis, but his presence was felt in the three games in which he played significant minutes, all three of which were Thunder victories. The former Pittsburgh Panther plays extremely physical defense and often gets under opposing players' skin. Adams' five rejections in the Thunder's Game 6 win in Memphis was huge, but his biggest impact was goading Zach Randolph into punching him, which led to Z-Bo's Game 7 suspension. If Adams receives the increase in minutes that I expect, and can similarly frustrate Jordan, he could have a major impact on the outcome of this series.