With pursed lips and a quick pace, Thunder coach Billy Donovan walked up three steps to a raised platform late Tuesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. Settling into a chair behind a microphone and a desk covered in a Thunder-blue sheet, he looked out over a handful of journalists.
The room was nondescript, its walls dark and its lighting harsh. But his was one of the most unique vantage points in the NBA.
As the league begins to turn its eyes toward a postseason that begins in fewer than six weeks, debating potential matchups and calculating championship odds, no one right now has a better perspective on a pair of championship contenders than Donovan and Oklahoma City.
Three days after the Thunder, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, were drilled by 47 in Milwaukee, they trailed by as many as 21 points in a 109-94 defeat against a Clippers team that flexed its might on both ends. It was enough for some Thunder fans – among the loudest and most loyal in the league – to say their goodbyes with a full quarter still to play.
Milwaukee swept the season series with Los Angeles 2-0, with both games played before Dec. 6. But that does not mean some within the league have not considered what a potential rematch in June, in the NBA Finals, might look like, as postseason position takes shape over the next several weeks.
Donovan, for one, has seen what each can do at full strength.
“Both teams have depth, both teams have size, both teams defend really well,” Donovan said. “Both teams have shooting, both teams have stars. Stylistically both teams are different, they play the game differently, not saying one’s better than the other, they just play differently. But both in their own right are very, very elite.
“To sit there and say who’s better or who we feel is better would be really hard to say. They’re both really, really good quality teams.”
Tuesday’s game was a playoff preview in its own right, with the Clippers (42-19) and Thunder (37-24) potentially headed for a first-round matchup. Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 25 points and teammates Paul George and Montrezl Harrell added 16 points apiece to help Los Angeles move into sole possession of second place in the Western Conference with 21 games remaining in the regular season.
Thunder guard Dennis Schroder scored a team-high 24 points off the bench, with former Clippers Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari each scoring 15 points.
Behind a scoring differential that ranks among the best in NBA history and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could be voted the league’s most valuable player a second consecutive season, the Bucks have been the NBA’s gold standard. And out West, the Lakers have held the top seed for weeks.
But the victory was the Clippers’ fifth consecutive and third during a demanding, revealing stretch of their schedule that has seen them rev up for the postseason by beating Denver, Philadelphia and Oklahoma City in the past week with Houston and the Lakers upcoming.
They are “completely different” than the Bucks in their style of play, Thunder center Steven Adams said. Milwaukee shoots more three-pointers, scores more in transition and walls off the paint defensively better than anyone.
“But same mind-set,” Adams said. “They’re very crisp on their communication, crisp on their execution of the defensive sets and offensive sets and then obviously you just need, along with all the system stuff, you still need those superstar players to save some plays.
“You can run the system all you can, you might not get a good shot. Some of the superstar players are able to kind of get you something out of that position, which actually goes a long way.”
The Clippers’ defense was the star Tuesday, limiting Oklahoma City to only two field goals during a four-minute stretch late in the first quarter to extend their lead to 13 points.
When the Thunder bench, led by Schroder, trimmed that deficit to 43-42 midway through the second quarter on a pull-up jumper by Gilgeous-Alexander, the arena rumbled as hundreds of fans behind each basket banged together inflatable sticks colored orange and blue.
Then the whole place went quiet: Over the next four minutes, the Clippers scored 16 unanswered points to open a lead that would stand at 12 by halftime.
And after their third-quarter lead was cut to nine with 5:45 to play, the Clippers began a methodical 20-10 run to close the quarter.
“One of the things we’ve not done, that you would have thought before the year we would do a lot of, is made very few defensive runs,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re starting to do that now. Our guys are starting to see that, they’re talking about making defensive runs now instead of offensive runs.”
The Clippers received a scare in the third quarter when Harrell fell to the ground in pain while fighting for a rebound before hobbling off, keeping weight off his left ankle. He reinjured it with 5:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, but said he expects to play Thursday against Houston.
Harrell left an upbeat locker room on his way out of the arena. Down the arena hallway, the Thunder’s spacious room was silent after seeing two of the NBA’s best, three days apart.
“They’re not scrubs, mate,” Adams said. “There’s no fluke that they’re in the position that they’re in.”