Game Day Preview: MLK Day match features OKC Thunder @ Clippers

OKC Thunder will usher in Martin Luther King Jr. Day playing in a back-to-back as the Clippers play host. Tip off is 9:30 PM CT (10:30PM ET).

The last time the OKC Thunder played the Clippers it marked the changing of the calendar to the New Year. In that New Years Eve match OKC served up an offensive beat down and came away with a solid 114-88 victory. Tonight the teams square off, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but with very different rosters at play.

First, Chris Paul is back for the Clippers and with his return the Clippers have seemingly gotten back on track after stumbling in his absence.  Also of note, the loss to Oklahoma City on New Years Eve  capped a season high 6-game losing streak for LA. Since then. the Clippers have flipped the script going 6-0. Granted, their competition (save for Memphis) has featured 5 current lottery teams.

Over the same time frame, the OKC Thunder have suffered a 3-game road losing streak, followed it with a 3-game win streak and have split their last 2 games. Also, during this period Cameron Payne made his season debut. Though Payne’s presence offers more pluses than minuses, the reserve unit in essence has started from scratch as they learn to gel with each other.

Related: Why Westbrook deserves to start All-Star Game, a statistical comparison of backcourt players

Missing Big Men:

Perhaps the biggest news for tonight’s game will focus on who laces them up in the front court for both sides. Blake Griffin has begun the process of his return, having worked out Saturday, but is expected to remain out until at least the 20th.

Of graver concern is OKC Thunder big man Steven Adams who suffered an injury in the game last night in Sacramento.  With all due respect to my counterpart who felt the incident which resulted in Adams injury was just tough game play, I disagree. Mind you I’m not placing blame solely on DeMarcus Cousins. Review of the incident shows Garrett Temple and Rudy Gay were also involved in the play that eventually ended with Adams hitting his head on the court. In review, Cousins has Adams wrapped up and does seem to pull him down. Aiding in the incident though are Temple who pushes him, as does Gay.

The resulting effect is Adams had to leave the game with indications of a concussion. Although there was no update following the game, if Adams has in fact been put in the concussion protocol it will likely mean he misses the game tonight. The reason is there are a series of tests the concussed player has to pass, just to gain re-entry to games. I’ve outlined what that process would involved here.

I recall a previous player saying how onerous the tests are, so it seems unlikely Adams would play tonight. Fortunately, the Thunder won’t play again until Wednesday, and then have a rare 4-days off until their next match (in Utah).  Hopefully, Adams won’t be out for a long period  given the Thunder need him during this tough road heavy stretch.

Adams has always been a player who seems to have a high pain threshold, but a concussion is a much different beast in that it’s neurological. Let’s hope he returns quickly however, and isn’t out for an extended period like Al Horford was earlier this season when he suffered a concussion and missed 9 games over 16 days as he recovered.

Who starts if Adams is out?

The issue for the Thunder is they have an extremely young, inexperienced squad. Obviously Westbrook has been the key to getting everyone rolling. But, Enes Kanter and the return of Cameron Payne was finally getting the bench unit rolling as Cole Hixon expertly broke down.

If Adams can’t go, logically Kanter moves into the starting line-up, but that leaves the bench in dire straights.  Donovan however only has a few options because his roster is so inexperienced their best qualities tend to be defensive prowess, so removing an offensive juggernaut from the reserve unit means someone needs to pick up the scoring slack.

Alex Abrines or Jerami Grant might fit that need via 3 point shooting and drives respectively. But, it’s more likely Donovan will try to stagger Oladipo and Westbrook’s minutes in an effort to help the reserve unit offensively.

Keys to Win:

Defense must rue the day: The Clippers rank higher both in defense (6th to OKC Thunder 8th rank) and offense (6th versus OKC’s 15th rank). Despite that fact, much of LA’s defensive rank has been courtesy of an easy schedule.  It’s just an opinion, but the Thunder have a much better defensive squad than the Clippers although Adams is a big part of the reason OKC excel in this area.

Team Rebounding: Although the Thunder are a much better rebounding team if Adams is out they’ll need to team rebound to make up for his loss.

Broken Record – manage the ball: This key point rears it’s ugly head repeatedly because it is the reason the Thunder lose close games, cough up leads and get in trouble. For all the benefits the squad gain forcing turnovers to score in the fast break and their stellar transition defense, turnovers is their Achilles Heel. If OKC want any chance of winning today they have to keep their turnovers down.

Managing the Clippers talent:  Again, the loss of Adams could spell trouble for the Thunder who already enter on weary legs to play the rested Clippers. Roberson and Oladipo will do their part to counter Chris Paul and J.J. Redick but the issue will be taking DeAndre Jordan out of the mix if Adams can’t go.

Bottom Line:

With the Warriors on tap Wednesday ideally this is a game the Thunder would prefer to win, especially if Adams can’t go in either game.  For OKC to win it will take more than Russell Westbrook’s 21st triple-double.

A winning effort would be earmarked by focusing on team defense and ball movement. The bench could prove to be the x-factor, but again if Adams can’t go it will mean they have to rely on someone else to step up to counter the loss of Kanter (assuming he starts).

It does feel like the Thunder are fighting a losing battle given this is their third game in four nights. Then again, this is the type of game the Thunder (and Westbrook specifically) tend to raise their efforts for and surprise everyone.

RELATED CONTENT:  Griffin, Capela Injuries Opens Door – Can OKC seize opportunity

Rotations:

OKC Thunder Starters:

Point Guard:  Russell Westbrook 
Shooting Guard:  Victor Oladipo
Small ForwardAndre Roberson
Power Forward: Domantas Sabonis
Center:  *Steven Adams

OKC Thunder Bench:

Point Guard: Cameron Payne, Semaj Christon
Shooting Guard: Alex Abrines Anthony Morrow
Small Forward: Jerami Grant, Kyle Singler,
Power Forward: Nick Collison
Center: Enes KanterJoffrey Lauvergne

Notes:

  • *Steven Adams (as per above) may miss game due to concussion

Los Angeles Clippers Starters:

Point Guard: Chris Paul
Shooting Guard: Austin Rivers
Small Forward: J.J. Redick
Power Forward: Luc Mbah a Moute
Center: DeAndre Jordan

RELATED CONTENT:  Griffin, Capela Injuries Opens Door – Can OKC seize opportunity

Los Angeles Clippers Bench:

Point Guard: Raymond Felton
Shooting Guard: Jamal Crawford, Alan Anderson
Small Forward: Wesley Johnson
Power Forward: Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce
Center: Mareesse Speights, Diamond Stone

Notes:

  • Blake Griffin remains out, but is expected back soon (January 20th, is projected date)
  • Bryce Johnson also began practice with the team, but is still listed as out

Must Read: Five Shooters the Thunder Should Target

Game Specifics:

Recent History: OKC Thunder hold the all-time record 17-15  over L.A with a 5-2 advantage in the teams past 7 meetings.

The Venue: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

The Tip: 9:30 PM CT (10:30 PM ET)

TV: FS Oklahoma HD

RadioWWLS 98.1FM OKC / 930AM (ESP)

The line: Odds makers have the Clippers as 8 point favorites with an over/under of 212.5 points.

Referees: Marc Davis  (#8), Ron Garretson (#10), and Karl Lane (#77)

Next up the OKC Thunder travel to Oakland for their second game against that guy who defected this summer.  Fortunately, OKC Thunder will have the remainder of the week off. And, after playing three games in four nights the team can definitely use the rest.

This article originally appeared on