Tuesday, April 17, 2012

17/4 - Hornets @ Bobcats, Thunder @ Clippers

For those of you scratching your heads at the appearance of two games, I was all set to watch Cats and NOH clash until I saw Eric Gordon was being rested. After reviewing the Hornets and the Bobcats already, without the addition of Gordon I didn't feel up to sitting through a whole game. Instead a watched the 4th quarter of this game and then the whole of Thunder vs Clippers.

From what little I saw of the first game, I came away very impressed with Gerald Henderson. He's struggled to consistently stay on the floor due to a number of nagging injuries, but it seems like he's finally hit a bit of a groove, and instead of doing most of his work off the ball in catch and shoot situations, he was handling the rock in the 4th and aggressively driving to the rim. It was paying off, because they simply couldn't stop him scoring in the paint once he got there, he has great touch inside and while I doubted his future with Charlotte in the past, I think he is a starter to keep around; his toughness, versatility and prototypical game at the 2-guard spot mean he can fit in with any roster and still be effective.

Tyrus Thomas looked straight up awful, every time he touched it in the 4th he was taking one dribble pull-up Js from the elbow and bricking them. With that sort of length he should look to roll to the basket more or at the very least position himself for rebounds better. It seems he still fancies himself a SF/PF, when it's patently obvious to all who watch him that he's strictly a PF.

Nothing to say about the Hornets really, they pulled out the win through teamwork and hustle, exactly what I've come to expect from a Monty Williams team.

So on to the heavyweight bout, Clippers vs Thunder. The Clippers actually match up really well with OKC, as Ibaka's ability to anchor the D is compromised by the attention Blake needs. I think they'd be better off playing Perkins on Blake full time and freeing up Ibaka to help.

This was really a game of two halves, the Thunder were hot to start off with, and after the Clippers went into a zone they were doing a good job of dismantling it until Westbrook got involved... then it all went to pieces. Now, don't get me wrong, Westbrook is an amazing player in his unique way, but he's also one of the most ego-driven players in the NBA, and not in a good way. Whenever he's matched up against a premier PG, he forgets that he's a distributor and starts hoisting jumpers from all over the court. It seems to manifest even more when the opposition point is undersized, for whatever reason, Russ treats small PGs with contempt and is often burned by them as a result. It happened with Barea in the playoffs last season, and it happened today with CP3.

I know it seems like I'm being harsh, but mentally, Westbrook is the weak link on this team. Durant had a great first half, with 19 points and seemed to be on pace for another 30 point effort, until Russ got blocked by Bledsoe on a jumper in the paint, and completetly took OKC out of rhythm. It's not just that he missed the shots, it's that he airballed the vast majority of them and continued to take them, and beyond that, the moments he picked to take them. Whenever OKC seemed on the upswing, clawing back in the second half, Russ would be there to brick another jumper.

As I said, Durant was looking great until the Clippers started playing a zone and he couldn't isolate. Kenyon Martin must also be given credit for doing a great job defending him and taking him out of his comfort zone, but his frustration with some questionable officiating, Westbrook's selfishness and missing wide open 3s just combined to make the second half a nightmare. That said, he never stopped working hard, and you could tell just how badly he wanted to win, so I'll live with his lacklustre second half.

Ibaka got into foul trouble early with a silly offensive foul (helped by another Griffin flop), but when he was finally allowed back into the game in the 3rd he single-handedly kept the Thunder within reach with great offensive rebounding and subsequent scores. Perkins was a non-factor, neither stopping Griffin, nor scoring in the paint a whole lot, though he did have one key offensive board in the 3rd to keep the Thunder within reach. Harden's slump continued, he wasn't able to effect the game in a significant way, and after making a tough contested shot to bring the Thunder within 1, he undid it by drawing a technical.

Coach Brooks made a mistake in going to a zone D to try and slow the Clippers, because with Mo Williams and Nick Young hitting their shots, it was far too easy to score from the perimeter. On back to back plays in the 4th Durant was burned by Nick Young hitting a corner J because he was helped on the penetration and had no chance of recovery. With Chris Paul's ability to get into the gaps of a man defence, playing zone is foolish.

The Clippers were heavily reliant on Paul in the first half, who stepped up to the challenge of playing Russ and had a number of ridiculous floaters in the paint ove the course of the game. The commentators made a point that Paul seems to have gotten his legs back from before his injury, and I'm inclined to agree, he seemed a lot more comfortable blowing by his man to the rim and attacking off the pick and roll. He hit a number of outside shots too, including a three with a hand in his face in the 4th to keep the momentum going in LAs direction.

Martin was great on Durant, did a great job making him work to get the ball and contesting shots without fouling. Blake had some great moments, including what seemed like endless offensive rebounds after missed 3s, often with OKC players draped all over him. Defensively he showed an improved understanding of how to help effectively, and was often in position to deny the lane when Westbrook tried to go by his man, but a lot of that comes down to the zone Del Negro employed.

Mo Williams provided some key minutes off the bench, hitting jumpers and creating for others. Bledsoe got a bit of run while the game was tight and matches up well with Westbrook athletically, he had a nice putback on an offensive rebound and was just a little ball of energy off the bench. Nick Young had a great game for the Clippers, he didn't seem to miss any of his jump shots and hit some crucial shots in crunch time.

Ultimately, it didn't come down to the final plays because the Thunder just couldn't get a bucket down the stretch and starting isolating every time down. OKC should be worried about facing the Clippers in the second round, because of all the teams in the Western conference, the Clippers (along with Memphis) matches up with them the best, and I can see Russ struggling against Paul in a seven game series.

The thing that frustrated me the most about this game was Del Negro's insistence on using zone for the majority of the second half. Yes, it worked, but it resulted in some ugly basketball which came down to whether OKC could break it open with 3 pointers. I will say however, that Chris Paul is an amazing zone defender, he was matched up with Kevin Durant a couple of times and simply didn't allow him to get his balance to shoot over the top.

Tomorrow it's the streaking Pacers against the slumping Sixers, two teams who were vying for the 3rd seed in the early stages of the season are now heading in the opposite direction. Let's hope they get matched up in the playoffs, because they are very similar in their approach and build.

I've made a couple of other changes to the schedule, I'll be watching Nets vs Knicks on the 19th, Rockets vs Hornets on the 20th instead of Bulls vs Heat, and the Rockets against the Warriors on the 22nd to see Klay Thompson and Jeremy Tyler in action.

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