Thunder feel at home while visiting Clippers
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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers are starting to feel more comfortable in their own home, although the Oklahoma City Thunder might actually be slightly more familiar with the surroundings.
When the Thunder face the Clippers on Thursday, it will be their second game in two days at Staples Center, having defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 133-96 there Wednesday. With the victory, the Thunder righted themselves from a two-game skid that had followed a six-game winning streak.
A second consecutive victory won't come easy as the Clippers have won four straight games and six of their last seven. Five of those six victories have come at Staples Center, with the Clippers in the midst of one of their longest home stretches of the season.
Thursday's game will be the Clippers' fifth consecutive at Staples Center (one game was as the visiting team against the Lakers), and they will run that streak to seven consecutive when they host the Golden State Warriors on Saturday and the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.
But the comforts of home have not buoyed their fortunes as much as the return of All-Star forward Blake Griffin.
Since coming back a full month early than projected from a knee sprain, Griffin has scored at least 21 points in each of the three games of his return, and pushed his on-court minutes to 36 in Tuesday's 113-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Griffin's injury was just one in a number of setbacks so far for the Clippers.
"We have had a lot of unfortunate injuries, and I still don't think we have had a game with our full starting lineup since Game 2," Griffin said after Tuesday's game. "It's the next-man-up mentality."
Indeed, with players such as guard Patrick Beverley (knee) lost for the season, forward Danilo Gallinari (glute) likely out another month and guard Austin Rivers (ankle) questionable, the Clippers are getting contributions all over the roster. Guys like guard C.J. Williams, forward Montrezl Harrell and forward Wesley Johnson have taken advantage of the opportunity.
The Thunder (21-17), of course, take their cues from guard Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double during a stellar December. On the season, Westbrook is averaging 24.7 points, with 9.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists.
Combined with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder's Big Three averages about 60 percent of the team's points each night. Westbrook, George and Anthony are all coming off 20-point games against the Lakers. Rookie Terrance Ferguson also put up 24 points.
But offense is not the Thunder's only identity. George and Westbrook are first and second in the league in steals, collecting 2.45 and 2.00 respectively.
That defense wasn't at its best in a surprise 116-113 defeat to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. Their prior defeat Friday to the Bucks came in controversial fashion when Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo appeared to step out of bounds before scoring the game-winning basket.
Overall, December was still good to the Thunder. They went 12-5 in the month, even with the slip on the final few days of 2017. Now, with the new year, the Thunder hope to have clicked the reset button.
"We played 18 games in 31 days and had very little practice time," Thunder coach Billy Donovan told the Oklahoman. "I think there's been a lot of slippage. The only way you can correct it and deal with it is you try to show it on film and point it out. We need to get back to our identity as an elite defensive team."
The Thunder had two days off to correct those recent shortcomings before facing the Lakers on Wednesday.
While Westbrook was named Western Conference player of the week for games played Dec. 18-24, the Clippers' Lou Williams was the next winner of the award, earning it for games played Dec 25-31.
Williams has done much of his damage off the Clippers' bench this season, and has managed to step up his game even more since Rivers has missed the past two games. In those two games without Rivers, Williams has averaged 36.5 points per game.
Only a few weeks ago, with Griffin expected to be out for another month and a half, all looked grim for the Clippers. Now at 17-19 and closing fast on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Clippers are thinking big.
"We want to make the playoffs," Lou Williams told the Los Angeles Times. "It's really important (to win), right? But we're in a good rhythm right now. We're playing really well. We just want to keep going, keep going with the momentum."
Updated January 4, 2018