(SportsNetwork.com) - Two teams in the headlines will do battle in the Western Conference semifinals when the Oklahoma City Thunder, the No. 2 seed, meet the Los Angeles Clippers, who are ranked third.
For the Thunder, "Mr. Unreliable" became something of a rallying cry. The Oklahoman ran that headline describing Kevin Durant, who will probably be handed the league's MVP award before a home game during this series.
Durant responded with 36 and 33 points in the final two games against the Memphis Grizzlies, both double-digit victories for OKC and both were elimination games.
"He's one of the best players on the planet," Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks said of his superstar. "He's going to continue to help us win games and move us forward, not only with his shot-making, but his playmaking."
Sadly, the Clippers' headlines were of a much more serious tone.
Their owner, Donald Sterling, was caught on tape making racist comments. It affected the team in its Game 4 loss, then, before Game 5, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and prompted the Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the team.
Through this tumultuous time, the Clippers hung on for a Game 7 win over the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
"I just wanted us to win the game," said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. "Not because of all of this stuff, but this team just needed this win. I thought our guys fought. The adversity, they went through it. It drained them and they found enough energy to find a way to win the game."
Both teams needed seven games to dispatch their foes, but that was not a negative. The balance and depth of the Western Conference is outstanding and these two teams exemplify that.
The Clippers finished as the highest-scoring team during the regular season, while the Thunder came in fifth. Oklahoma City ranked 12th in opponents' scoring, while LA was two spots worse.
During the season, the two squads were evenly-matched. The Thunder have won five of the last seven meetings, but the two sides split four meetings this season. Each team won a road game during the four matchups in the 2013-14 campaign.
"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," said Clippers forward Matt Barnes.
The Clippers went 1-2 on the road against the Warriors, but were 3-1 at the Staples Center. The Thunder struggled a bit at Chesapeake Energy Arena, going 2-2 versus Memphis. Conversely, OKC was 2-1 in Memphis.
Both teams have very little turnaround time. Both won their series-clinchers on Saturday night and Monday evening, they'll be back at it.
"We already passed the books out, so they have all the Oklahoma books in their locker, I asked them to go home and read tonight. That's their homework," Rivers said after the Game 7 win.
Oklahoma City had a tougher trek getting to this point against the physical Grizzlies. The Thunder had to win two elimination games, including one on the road. While no one would confuse what the Clippers went through with anything associated with on-court issues, the Thunder did have to battle to advance to the semifinals.
"I know that they're going to keep fighting," Brooks said. "I know that we have a resilient group that loves to compete. We don't like to lose. We always try to figure out ways to get better. We're not mistake-free, but our effort is right on. I love coaching this team because of that."
BACKCOURT: Russell Westbrook is a superstar. Is he a true point guard? Probably not in the conventional sense since he's score-first, not pass-first. He did average 25.6 points in the Grizzlies series, but he took 23 shot attempts a game, which was the same number as Durant. Westbrook shot 38 percent from the field and committed 4.9 turnovers per game. He is dynamic and carry the team. He rose to the occasion Game 7 with a triple-double. Brooks took Thabo Sefolosha out of the starting lineup in favor of Caron Butler. The move was made to provide an offensive spark and Butler averaged 11 points in his two starts.
Chris Paul is the best point guard in the sport. His Game 7 performance of 22 points, 14 assists and just two turnovers was sensational. Paul is a dual threat who can really wreak havoc on the defensive end. For the series against Golden State, Paul averaged 17.4 ppg and 9.0 assists per game. J.J. Redick played moderately well against the Warriors. He posted 14.3 ppg and shot 39 percent from deep.
FRONTCOURT: Durant will win the league's MVP very soon according to reports (and common sense). He averaged 29.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 blocks against the Grizz. Granted, Durant shot 44 percent and 32 percent from 3-point range, which are low numbers by his standards. But, after the fateful headline, Durant's shooting percentage vaulted up to 56 percent. Serge Ibaka is an underrated piece of the puzzle. He average 13.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks against the awesome front line of the Grizzlies. Ibaka is an elite defensive player. Kendrick Perkins was needed against Memphis to bang around with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. He will be tasked with trying to keep DeAndre Jordan off the glass.
Blake Griffin has become a serious star. Griffin will likely finish third behind Durant and LeBron James in MVP voting because his game evolved and became complete. He ran into foul trouble against the Warriors, but still averaged 23.3 points. Jordan was massive versus Golden State. His per-game numbers were 12.1 points, 15.1 rebounds and 4.0 blocks. That's staggering production. Barnes is out there primarily for defense.
BENCH: Reggie Jackson was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and averaged 12.1 points against the Grizzlies. He was absent in quite a few games though. Derek Fisher provided steady backup point guard play and Steven Adams and Nick Collison are high-motor bigs. Sefolosha went from starting to not playing a single minute.
According to reports, Jamal Crawford has won the prestigious sub award. He's really like a starter in terms of minutes and production. Crawford averaged 16.7 points against the Warriors in just 24 minutes. Darren Collison, Glen Davis and Danny Granger also contributed in the previous series.
COACHING: Scott Brooks is a former Coach of the Year whose lost an NBA Finals. His team loves him, he loves them. Brooks' decision regarding Sefolosha is odd, but the Thunder are 2-0 with him earning DNP-CDs.
Doc Rivers is a championship-winning coach and his stewardship during this ugly episode was nothing short of amazing. He instantly improved the Clippers' defense and the play of Jordan and Griffin. Rivers was acquired from the Boston Celtics for a first-round pick and this is where the Clippers need his tutelage. If LA is to make its first Western Conference Finals ever, Rivers will need to show them how it's done.
PREDICTION: Do the Clippers still have anything left in the tank after dealing with the Sterling incident?
Do the Thunder still have anything left in the tank after dealing with the Memphis Grizzlies?
Those are the two biggest questions associated with this series. The teams are very evenly matched, so it might come down to the little things.
The Thunder believe they had a chance to make the NBA Finals, or, at the very least, the Western Conference Finals, last season. Westbrook injured his knee in the first round against Houston and the Thunder were done. They are healthy now.
Rivers was brought to LA for situations like this. The talent has been there since Paul become a Clipper. Vinny Del Negro couldn't get them past certain road blocks. Rivers is an easy guy to have faith in because he's done it in the past and always gotten the most out of his Boston teams, especially in the postseason.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: CLIPPERS in SIX