Through the first four games of the Western Conference semi-finals, both the Thunder and the Clippers have received tremendous production from their superstars. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are all playing more minutes, taking more shots and are all shooting at a higher percentage than their regular season averages in this series (with the exception of Griffin who is shooting slightly below his regular season average). In result, all four players are all scoring at a higher clip than their regular season averages as well.
|Regular Season Average||MPG||FGM-FGA||FG %||PPG
|Conference Semi-Finals||MPG||FGM-FGA||FG %||PPG
With all four superstars playing at such an exceptional level, they have almost cancelled each other out, forcing both teams to try to find an advantage from their role players. CP3 was definitely the MVP of Game 1 with his 32 points on 12 of 14 shooting, but Jamal Crawford's 17 points and plus-8 plus/minus off the bench were a huge part of the Clippers' win.
Similarly, while Durant and Westbrook's combined 63 points, 22 boards and 19 dimes was the most important aspect of the Thunder's Game 2 win, it was hot shooting from Serge Ibaka (one of the guys Shae Cronin focused on in his piece discussing OKC's potential third scoring options) and Thabo Sefolosha that opened up the floor for KD and Russ and helped seal the victory for the Thunder.
With that said, the true impact of each team's role players really began to take shape in Games 3 and 4. Scott Brooks went with an interesting small-ball lineup down the stretch in Game 3 which helped spread the floor for the Thunder, leading to a few huge three-pointers in the closing minutes of the game. When Brooks went back to that lineup in Game 4, Doc Rivers countered with a three-guard lineup of his own. That adjustment, coupled with some crafty defensive strategy, helped spark the Clippers massive fourth quarter comeback.
This chess match between Brooks and Rivers has been fascinating to watch over the past two games. Here is a closer look at the brilliance of Brooks' small-ball lineup in Game 3 and the genius behind Rivers' Game 4 adjustments.
The first 40 minutes of Game 3 were incredibly even. The Clippers led by just two points entering the fourth quarter, and the game was tied when the Thunder called a timeout with seven minutes and 51 seconds remaining. Rather than playing a more conventional lineup coming out of the timeout, Brooks inserted Caron Butler and Reggie Jackson into the game instead of starters Kendrick Perkins and Sefolosha. These substitutions left Oklahoma City with the following lineup on the floor:
PG - Russell Westbrook
SG - Reggie Jackson
SF - Caron Butler
PF - Kevin Durant
C -Serge Ibaka
Despite taking a small risk by sacrificing a little bit of defense, this lineup gave the Thunder significantly more versatility on the offensive end. That risk paid off instantly. Upon entering the game, Butler immediately knocked down two huge threes to give Oklahoma City a six point lead and the Thunder never looked back.
Most NBA teams would not be able to pull off a lineup like this against the Clippers due to DeAndre Jordan's rare combination of size and athleticism at the center position, but the Thunder were able to get away with it because of Ibaka's unique skill set. On the offensive end, Ibaka's ability to knock down jump shots forced Jordan away from the basket, spread the floor and opened up driving lanes for Westbrook and Durant.
Meanwhile, on defense, Serge knew DJ wasn't going to touch the ball due to his inability to knock down free throws or simply score from outside of the paint, allowing him to play more aggressive help defense. Not yet realizing the mismatch, Rivers left Jordan on the floor until there were only 27 seconds remaining in the game, but by then the damage was done.
|Stats from Final 7:51||Points||FG %||3P %||+/-
Infusing Butler and Jackson from off the bench created a lineup that the Clippers simply had no answer for. Despite Griffin making three of his four shots against Durant, the Thunder significantly out shot the Clippers, specifically from long range. L.A. was unable to knock down a single three-point attempt during this stretch, while Oklahoma City was able to hit three of their four attempts from behind the arc.
Unlike Game 3, the first three quarters of Game 4 were all Thunder. Oklahoma City was up by 12 points entering the fourth quarter and within two minutes the lead had ballooned to 17 points. Just like in the previous game, Scott Brooks switched to his small-ball lineup with eight minutes and 44 seconds remaining, this time with a 14 point lead.
But after seeing how ineffective his standard fourth quarter lineup was against OKC's small-ball in Game 3, Doc Rivers countered with a three-guard lineup which included Darren Collison and Danny Granger, neither of whom played a single minute in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Here is a look at three-guard lineup from Game 4:
PG - Chris Paul
SG - Darren Collison
SF - Jamal Crawford
PF - Danny Granger
C - Blake Griffin
The results of this lineup were staggering. Now that Jordan was on the bench, L.A. was able to counter Ibaka's unique skill set with Griffin's. Unlike when defending Jordan, Ibaka was forced to play Griffin tightly on the perimeter, particularly due to his improved mid-range game. Additionally, Blake's underrated vision and handles were huge in transition. With Blake at center, all five Clippers' players had the ability to grab a rebound and immediately turn offense into defense. This allowed L.A. to run the floor and score quickly, a key component of their comeback.
Adjusting his lineup wasn't the only trick Rivers had up his sleeve. In addition to switching up the personnel on the floor, the Clippers coach had the six-foot tall Paul guard the six-foot, ten-inch tall Durant. Although this height advantage allowed Durant to shoot over the top of Paul, CP3's low center of gravity made it incredibly difficult for Durant to put the ball on the floor. This strategy forced Durant to make quick decisions and, while this often meant Durant took uncontested shots, also led to KD committing four, fourth quarter turnovers.
Where as Butler and Jackson gave the Thunder a boost off the bench in Game 3, Crawford and Collison came up huge for the the Clippers off the bench in Game 4. Crawford and Collison combined for 19 points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in the fourth quarter of Game 4, with all of that other than two points, a rebound and the block coming while the Clippers' three-guard lineup was on the floor.
The most impressive part about this comeback is that L.A. did so while only attempting one three, which Crawford knocked down. For the most part, this entire comeback was built on defensive stops and transition layups. In result, the Clippers shot a ridiculous 85.7% from the field and outscored the Thunder by 16 points over the final eight minutes and 44 seconds of the game.
|Stats from Final 8:44||Points||FG %||3P %||+/-
If you want a better sense of just how crazy this comeback was, read Bryan Mears' article dissecting how the Clippers' Game 4 comeback effected their chances of winning the series. With the series once again tied heading into the final three games the coaching chess match becomes even more critical. Which coach will lead their team to the Western Conference Finals? We'll all have to watch to find out.