Western Conference Semis: Clippers-Thunder and Kevin Durant’s Quiet Leadership


After tonight the Western Conference Semifinals will have neared their mid-way point, with each series completing three games. After an impossibly intense first round, the second round games have proven a bit less dramatic.

OKC-LAC (OKC leads 2-1)

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are competing in a fiercely contested best-of-seven Western Conference Semifinals playoff series right now. Here’s a recap of the the last week:

Monday

Game 1 found Chris Paul announcing to all involved that he enjoys swishing three-pointers. Paul took a decidedly aggressive approach and sank all five of his attempts from beyond the arc in the first quarter, propelling the Clippers to a 39-25 lead. The Clippers offense never let up, with OKC looking beleaguered by the ball movement. After three quarters, the Clippers had poured in 104 points and ended up crusing to a 17-point blowout win. After facing the slow-down grit-grind-garage of the Memphis Grizzlies half-court offense, Chris Paul’s up-tempo motion took control of the game early and the Clippers didn’t let up.

Tuesday

Kevin Durant showed each teammate, coach, family member and friend how much they mean to him on Tuesday.

Kevin Durant showed everyone in his life how much they mean to him on Tuesday.

In between Games 1 and 2, Kevin Durant accepted his first Most Valuable Player award and gave an incredibly inspiring acceptance speech. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch it now. It’l too rare to see any public figure, especially a professional athlete, exhibiting such genuine emotion and humility in accepting a personal award. If you watch it, notice the way Durant’s teammates are aware and present (as was everyone else) as they listen to him spread the award out to the entire team, player-by-player, coach-by-coach, family member-by-family member. Caron Butler, Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson were positively engrossed in Durant’s words. Durant’s tears are difficult for so many to deal with, because its become unusual to see such unvarnished honesty from a public figure. I loved the speech and when I read about it, I found terms like “waterworks” (Jim Rome and Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, who was emphasizing Durant’s NBA value through shot charts) to describe tears, the implication being that genuine emotion coming from men frightens people. Word choice is telling, and most members of the sports media don’t stop and consider it often enough. Durant was describing his mother’s sacrifice and his often difficult childhood, in which his mother’s love and dedication pulled the three of them through desperate times. Let’s reserve “waterworks” for Hollywood, not real people describing their real childhood experiences.

Wednesday

It’s easy to overstate the importance of motivation and psychology in sports. Teams are always more motivated after a playoff loss. The “backs against the wall” mentality is easy to understand. How about after a speech that unifies every member of a team. In which the spotlight dedicated to one player becomes a spotlight on every member of the organization. How can that not lift up a team?

Game 2 found the Thunder jumping out to an early lead, and never looking back. In the game’s first eight minutes, Durant simply went off, connecting on 6 of his first 7 shots and pushing OKC to an early 25-18 lead. After the Clippers settled into the game, things stabilized and the Thunder went into halftime with a 61-56 edge.

Westbrook and Durant absolutely dominated the third quarter, with Westbrook collecting steals and assists and Durant taking advantage of Doc Rivers’ plan to ignore Thabo Sefolosha (a defensive-minded wing). Sefolosha scored 12 points in the first 9 minutes after halftime, as OKC pushed the lead all the way to 20 (93-73).

The long arms of Thabo Sefolosha make Jamal Crawford frustrated.

The long arms of Thabo Sefolosha make Jamal Crawford frustrated.

Jamal Crawford, a critical offensive spark-plug for the Clippers, had a miserable third quarter and overall game, turning the ball to Sefolosha, and shooting a miserable 2 of 13 from the field (1 of 7 from deep).

Friday

Last night’s pivotal Game 3 in Los Angeles ended with OKC taking a 2-to-1 series lead thanks to the fourth quarter shooting of post-trade-deadline pick-up Caron Butler (3 three-pointers), and the Clippers misfiring on mostly contested shots from deep (1 of 8 in the 4th). The starting five of each roster is so talented that its often the play of the reserves that tips the balance. Paul and Griffin were both outstanding, but their play was neutralized by the efforts of Durant and Westbrook.

Jamal Crawford continued to struggle in Game 3, shooting 6 of 18 from the field and only 1 of 5 from deep, though he did manage to get himself to the free-throw line. OKC’s ability to defend the three-point line, in addition to Butler’s shooting, made life miserable for Crawford, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes. Collectively the three Clippers shot 3 of 15 from distance. Thabo Sefolosha’s impact should not be overlooked. Similar to Bruce Bowen over the years in San Antonio, Sefolosha is a brilliant perimeter stopper.

To hear Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen, ESPN’s best announcing team, describe the speech there was open praise. Breen explained the speech was “truly inspiring.” Van Gundy and Breen are always honest and have a slightly combative, yet amiable camaraderie that always comes through the telecast. Van Gundy made me laugh out loud later in the game when Russell Westbrook jumped, collided, and landed dangerously on his hip. As Westbrook lay in pain on the court, Breen explained, “Ooh. That hurts.” Van Gundy, not missing a beat, said “Like you know what it feels like to jump that high and land like that. You and I have 5-inch verticals. Westbrook just jumped 40-inches and landed on his hip.”

***

Game 4: OKC @ LAC, Sunday, 5/11, 33opm EST, ABC

Game 5: LAC @ OKC, Tuesday 5/13, 930pm EST, TNT

Game 6: (if nec) OKC @ LAC, Thursday, 5/15, TBD, ESPN

***

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My name is Boumjte. I am always hungry and almost always happy.

My name is Boumjte. I am always hungry and almost always happy.

 

 

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