When it comes to the chase for the NBA Championship this year, Golden State has taken all the oxygen in the room. What little hype that has been able to escape the Warriors vortex has gravitated towards San Antonio, especially as the Spurs were chasing the NBA all-time record for most home wins in a season.
Then Kobe went out and scored 60 on the final night of the regular season. LeBron announced that he was getting off social media and immediately proceeded to go on a ten game tear to close out the regular season, leading the prohibitive favorite to come out of the East, Cleveland Cavaliers. The national media spotlight just isn’t big enough to cover more stories than the easy ones that have fallen into their laps over the last few months.
And that leaves two teams that I think are legitimate title contenders sitting as relative afterthoughts in the national media spotlight and in the betting markets. The Oklahoma City Thunder were priced in the 15-1 range to win the NBA Title entering the playoffs. The Los Angeles Clippers were even higher, priced in the 30:1 range. Even though the spotlight is shining brightly on the NBA right now, these two elite teams aren’t getting their fair share. Right now, I’d call them #1 and #2 in the postseason value equation.
I don’t care what kind of metric you want to use – the Oklahoma City Thunder are no afterthought! Billy Donovan might be in his first year as an NBA head coach, but he’s no postseason virgin, guiding the Florida Gators to back-to-back national championships, the only college hoops back-to-back title winners in the last 25 years. At times in his first season as an NBA head coach, Donovan looked a little bit lost. And OKC had a problem with some blown late leads in high profile games; the only reason they didn’t win 60 games.
Blown leads in the regular season do not necessarily equate to blown leads in the playoffs. And the Thunder have at least three strong factors working in their favor moving forward. First and foremost, they’ve got two of the Top 5 players on the planet. Superstars carry teams to titles, and the Thunder have a pair of them in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, in particular, has thrived under Donovan’s tutelage; an elite point guard in his prime. And Durant is fully recovered from last year’s injury plagued debacle, giving the Thunder the requisite star power to win a championship.
Secondly, the Thunder are a truly elite rebounding team, and that’s putting it mildly. Enes Kanter – a reserve center coming off the bench – outrebounded the Mavericks entire starting lineup in Game 1. The Thunder are the single best rebounding team in the NBA over the last ten seasons, dominating both the offensive glass and the defensive glass.
OKC ranked #1 in rebounding margin during the regular season by a huge margin, grabbing 54.7% of all available rebounds. They won the battle of the boards 56-33 in their playoff opener against Dallas. Extra rebounds mean extra possessions, good news for a team that finished #2 behind Golden State in offensive efficiency this season, averaging just shy of 110 points per 100 possessions.
Third, this team is no playoff virgin – they’ve got the requisite experience as well as some real hunger after last year’s injury plagued debacle of a season left them on the outside looking in at the postseason. Let’s not forget that the Thunder were tied 2-2 with the Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference Finals before losing in OT, allowing San Antonio to reach the Finals and win a title. That came on the heels of their 2012 run to the NBA Finals against the Heat. This team knows how to win playoff series, plain and simple.
OKC is fast, deep, tall and athletic; leaving them live for another deep postseason run. Kevin Durant’s quote following Game 1 speaks volumes: “We just wanted to impose our will early. We didn't want to ease into the game. We wanted to be the aggressor."
Meanwhile, the LA Clippers spent the entire second half of the NBA season almost in purgatory, just waiting around for Blake Griffin to get healthy again (and finish serving his four game suspension for punching a staff member). But, like Oklahoma City, LA is no afterthought – not with the way they’re playing defense right now!
Over their final 11 meaningful games (not counting their "rest everybody" Game 82 loss at Phoenix), the Clippers held nine different opponents to 94 points or less in regulation, shutting down one strong offense after another. Doc Rivers, at the tail end of that stretch: “You can see how focused we have been. We are starting to take away individual strengths. Our talk is better. I love the way we're playing defense right now." Forward Jeff Green concurred: “Our (defensive) chemistry is great. It's getting better and better with each game.” Yet the betting markets and public attention aren’t focusing on that dramatic and significant recent defensive improvement.
Like Oklahoma City, the Clippers have the requisite star power to compete at the highest level. It’s not just Blake Griffin and Chris Paul either – DeAndre Jordan is a low post monster and there aren’t many players in the league capable of matching Paul Pierce’s postseason resume. Like OKC, the Clippers have excellent depth, a significant improvement compared to last year’s squad. Like OKC, the Clippers are no playoff virgins. In fact, the Clippers are the only team in the NBA to knock off both San Antonio (last year) and Golden State (two years ago) in a 7-game playoff series – not bad against the last two NBA champions.
The Clippers are now 11-1 SU in their last 12 meaningful games. Their only loss during that span came by two points at Oklahoma City in a game where Doc Rivers rested everybody on the second night of back-to-backs. This team is peaking right now, yet they were priced only -310 to win their first round series against the Blazers. That stands in sharp contrast to the -10000 for Golden State and San Antonio and -6000 for Oklahoma City for their respective first round series. That’s market disrespect, plain and simple.
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