The Los Angeles Clippers travel to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder Sunday in a much-anticipated matchup between two of the league's most athletic teams. The Clippers and Thunder also happen to be two of the very best squads in the Western Conference. The common denominator here is that both teams are adjusting on the fly to the return of their All-Star point guards.
Oklahoma City was dismantled on its home floor by the Miami Heat on Thursday. That isn't an exaggeration; the Thunder lost by 23 points at home and could only muster up 81 points of offense in Russell Westbrook's return to the floor. Knee injuries are never easy to come back from, and Westbrook looked off-kilter in the loss, but the underlying issue for OKC is trying to get back to playing with another high usage player.
The Thunder were forced to switch styles in Westbrook's absence; Kevin Durant elevated his game to a legendary level as his usage rate sky rocketed and the supporting cast adjusted accordingly. With the return of Westbrook, the offense switches back to a more balanced approach. That's a very good thing for OKC in the long run, but it makes for some necessary and tricky adjustments in the short term.
The Clippers, likewise, are still adjusting to the return of Chris Paul, who sat out over a month with a shoulder injury. L.A. has split its four games since his return, losing to a surging Grizzlies squad and a Spurs team that was without Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. Without Paul, the Clippers ran their offense almost exclusively through Blake Griffin, who answered the challenge with huge nights all stacked on top of one another.
Like the Thunder with Westbrook, however, the Clippers are obviously better with Paul. He controls the game on offense with the acumen of a classical composer and he's a pesky defender with quick hands and the instincts to play inside of passing lanes. But playing through the post and then switching back to a point guard dominant offense isn't an easy shift, so it may still take some time for L.A. to adjust.
There are some other things to keep an eye on aside from those micro-adjustments made to the starting lineup. Serge Ibaka versus Griffin is a matchup to keep an eye on. Durant is a matchup nightmare, and it'll be interesting to see how Doc Rivers and the Clippers decide to handle him. Matt Barnes will likely get the call, but there really is no checking Durant. They can send two people at him, but if the Thunder play small then there will be open shooters he can swing the ball to as needed.
There is no doubt that the Clippers and Thunder are in a much better position with their All-NBA starting point guards back in the lineup. Now it's time for the adjustment period for both teams as they begin to make a push for playoff positioning. If the playoffs started today, this is a potential beauty of a second-round matchup. Maybe today, then, both teams will begin to scheme against one another.