OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Los Angeles Clippers initially were reeling after the incendiary racial comments by owner Donald Sterling that got him banned from the NBA for life.
The team unified and rallied to beat the Golden State Warriors in seven games, setting up a Western Conference semifinal against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder that starts Monday.
“For us, it’s basketball,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “Had we lost this game, it wasn’t like they were going to let us go to the next round because of what we’ve been through. I think it just showed our will, our fight, and more so than getting through all that, it was getting through tonight.”
The Thunder fought through a different kind of challenge — a familiar foe with a difficult style. Oklahoma City survived a grind-it-out series against the Memphis Grizzlies and prevailed in seven games.
There should be a lot less grinding and a lot more running and gunning in this matchup.
Los Angeles led the NBA in scoring during the regular season with 107.9 points per game. All-Star forward Blake Griffin has improved his all-around game, and Paul is perhaps the league’s best point guard.
“This team runs at a high level, they pass the ball up the floor at a high level,” Durant said. “They advance the ball, they have athletic guys and shooters all around. Our defense is going to be tested.”
Durant is the league’s scoring champion, and point guard Russell Westbrook is one of the NBA’s best athletes. The Thunder ranked fifth in scoring this season with 106.2 points per contest.
Griffin said playing the Warriors helped them get ready for the Thunder.
“Defensively, it prepared us to really be on our rotations and understand that nothing is going to be perfect, but we just have got to work it out,” he said.
Here are five things to watch for in the series:
IS DURANT REALLY BACK? Durant struggled through much of the series against Memphis before returning to form in the final two games. In the first five games, he averaged 28 points and shot 40 percent from the field. In the last two games, he averaged 34.5 points and shot 56 percent.
Memphis guard Tony Allen, who had success defending Durant, said the rest of the league could be in trouble.
“Should be easy for him, a lot easier for him now that I ain’t got to harass him,” Allen said.
PAUL’s HAMSTRING: Paul has been dealing with a sore right hamstring, a bad problem to have against Oklahoma City’s speed. Memphis’ Mike Conley entered Game 7 with a strained hamstring, and Westbrook finished with a triple-double.
Paul had 22 points and 14 assists in 42 minutes against Golden State on Saturday.
GRIFFIN vs. IBAKA: Griffin ranked sixth in the league with 24.1 points per game in the regular season. He is usually the dominant athlete in his matchups, but Ibaka, who led the NBA in total blocks in the regular season and was fourth in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting, might be his match.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said defending Griffin is different than it once was.
“His mid-range jump shot — you can’t give him that anymore,” Brooks said. “He can make that, and he knocks that down, and he shoots it with confidence, and they look for him.”
WILL WESTBROOK PASS? For much of the first five games against Memphis, Westbrook shot 34 percent from the field and averaged 25.4 points on 25.6 shot attempts as his team fell behind 3-2. In the final two games, he shot 51 percent from the field, averaged 26 points on 18.5 shots per game and added 10.5 assists as the Thunder rolled to two blowout wins.
“He’s an attack player,” Brooks said. “He wants to get to the lane and finish around the paint. There’s always a balance, and I think he’s done a good job the last two or three games of finding that.”
DO THE CLIPPERS HAVE ANYTHING LEFT? The Clippers have acknowledged that the Sterling situation has taken its toll. They played a tough seven-game series against the Warriors and follow it with Game 1 on the road two days later against a team that had the league’s second-best home record at 34-7.
The Clippers defeated the Thunder in Oklahoma City 125-117 on Feb. 23, though under much different circumstances.
“It’s tough to win in OKC,” Clippers forward Matt Barnes said. “These playoffs aren’t going to be easy, but we’ve won there this season, and we’re looking to go up there and get one.”
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