Russell Westbrook was frustrated by his team’s ineffectiveness on offense, so he walked away from the timeout huddle, slapped a seat at the end of the bench and sat, steaming.
Chris Paul was hampered by a sore hamstring, so he pulled back on the accelerator, adjusted his method of attacking the pick-and-roll and drained eight 3-pointers.
The point guards’ responses to their respective annoyances summed up why the Los Angeles Clippers took Game 1 over the Oklahoma City Thunder in their Western Conference semifinal series. Nobody creates agita in opponents like the Clippers. They have to. Paul may be brilliant, Blake Griffin occasionally fantastic and the depth seemingly endless, but the Clippers are not as good a team straight-up as the Thunder. It’s debatable whether they were even a better team than the Golden State Warriors, their first-round opponent, at full strength.
But they seldom have to play straight-up, because of the agita. The irritation. The ability to get under opponents’ skin, like a latter-day Bad Boys. And if the Thunder continue to fall into the Clippers’ trap like they did in Game 1, Durant and company will be looking at an early playoff exit for the second straight spring.
The Clippers’ antics alone are not the point. Griffin lying on the ground underneath the hoop, clamping his legs around a standing Serge Ibaka to prevent the OKC big man from moving, is not much in the big picture. Paul and his teammates engaging in a dust-up with the Dubs after the last series had zero impact on the outcome by itself. No amount of extracurricular activity can overcome a talented, disciplined opponent.
The impact is in the opponent’s reaction. Kevin Durant picked up an uncharacteristic (but deserved) technical foul. Westbrook demonstrated Paul’s psychological dominance over him by bolting the huddle during the timeout. Coach Scott Brooks is forever under fire for his lack of offensive creativity, but even if he’d had something nifty up his sleeve on Monday, his players were in no mental condition to execute it.
There is only one thing for the Thunder to do now if they want to win this series. When Paul snaps his head back like he suffered whiplash at the slightest contact or when Griffin spears a defender with his off-hand elbow while going for a dunk, the Thunder must simply walk away. Maybe they can remind the officials, quietly, about the Clippers’ tendency to manufacture calls, but the more vehemently they protest, the more they play into the Clippers’ hands. Because while Paul is better than Westbrook and Griffin is better than Ibaka, Durant is so vasty superior to everyone else on the court that OKC should win this series from a purely basketball standpoint.
If the Thunder must respond, let Kendrick Perkins or hatchet-man Steven Adams do it. Let the grunts get their hands dirty while Durant and Westbrook focus on the things that matter. If they do, the Clippers’ odds fall dramatically. The Thunder need to avoid playing the Clippers’ game, if they want to keep playing games at all beyond this round.