Let’s play a Thunder game of ‘Would you rather…’: Mavericks or Clippers?

Let’s play a Thunder game of ‘Would you rather…’: Mavericks or Clippers?

Why determining the best matchup for the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinal can be decided with a quick game you can play at home.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| May 3, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

May 3, 2024, 6:00am CDT

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My kiddo loves to pop me with “Would you rather … ” questions.

“So, Mom, would you rather never eat chocolate again or never drink coffee again?”

“Would you rather only do takeout for a month or only make your own meals for a month?”

“Would you rather go to the beach or the mountains?”

No right answer. No wrong answer. But it’s always interesting to think about and definitely interesting to talk about, rationalizing why it’s one over the other.

So, here’s one for you: Would you rather the Thunder play the Clippers or the Mavericks?

The Thunder will play whatever team limps (literally) to victory in that first-round series. While the Mavs’ 30-point victory Wednesday night gives them not only a 3-2 lead in the series but also big-time momentum as the series swings back to Dallas, nothing seems certain in their matchup, largely because each team’s best player is hobbled.

That means right and wrong answers are hard to come by when trying to figure out who the Thunder should want to play.

In that spirit, it’s time for a playoff edition of “Would you rather.”

Would you rather face the Clippers with a hurting Kawhi Leonard or the Mavericks with a hurting Luka Doncic?

Leonard’s injury (right knee inflammation) has been much more detrimental to his availability so far in the playoffs. He has played in only two games against the Mavericks, and he was clearly off. Kawhi scored 15 points on 7-of-17 shooting in Game 2, then only nine points on 4-of-7 shooting in Game 3. 

The Clips lost those games and actually looked better without him in Games 1 and 4, which they won.

Game 5? That was a bad loss without Kawhi.

Luka has been slowed by a sprained right knee, which he injured in the first quarter of Game 3. Before Game 5, he told reporters in Los Angeles that his knee was “not good” and that he’d made no explosive movements since the injury.

Still, he went out and scored 35 points and dished 10 assists Wednesday night.

Luka has yet to miss a game with the injury either.

If the Clippers were at full strength — Kawhi, Paul George and James Harden — they might be a serious handful. But even if Kawhi plays, the Clippers sure haven’t seemed to be at full speed. 

The Mavs, while not as potent with a hobbled Luka, shot 54.0% in Game 5, their highest shooting percentage of the series.

Facing the Clips with a hurting Kawhi seems an easier path for the Thunder.

Would you rather relive stories of Thunders past now with the Clippers or stories of Mavs-Thunder series past?

There are sure to be storylines that get hit repeatedly regardless of who the Thunder plays, and because the franchise has strong history with both the Mavs and the Clips, those drums are sure to be beat.

The Clippers and Thunder have the more robust history with three former Thunders on the roster, PG, The Beard and Russ. There would no doubt be stories about Paul George’s trade from OKC to the Clippers; about Harden being traded away from the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook bunch, then going on to win MVP; about Russ’s time in OKC.

Now, the PG trade story would also have to include the fact that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is now a Thunder because of it.

(Thunder fans should eternally thank Paul George for not making his trade demands public. Keeping it private gave the Thunder much more leverage in negotiations. Maybe Sam Presti gets SGA regardless, but George’s decision not to go public made it so much easier.)

Still, those Clippers stories would no doubt include what-might-have-been scenarios that are sure to rankle and depress Thunder fans.

Stories of playoff series past against the Mavericks would be largely positive for the Thunder. Three times the teams have met in the playoffs — 2011 Western Conference Finals, 2012 first round, 2016 first round — and twice the Thunder won the series.

The lone setback came the year that the Mavs won it all with Dirk Nowitzski and Co., so no shame it losing a playoff series to that bunch.

In the two playoff series since, the Thunder has won eight of nine games against the Mavs, including a sweep in 2012 en route to an NBA Finals appearance.

And the last time the two teams played was the “He’s a idiot” game.

Before Game 5 in 2016, Mavs owner Mark Cuban opined that the series had two superstars, Dirk and KD. Westbrook? Cuban wasn’t ready to put Russ in that category.

Then Russ went out and promptly walloped the Mavs with 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.

When asked in the postgame press conference about Cuban’s comments, Westbrook never had the chance to answer. Durant, sitting next to him, stuck out his hand and said “Hold up.”

“He’s a idiot,” Durant continued. “Don’t listen to him. He’s a idiot. That’s what we’ve got to say about that. He’s a idiot. Next question.”

It was the greatest press conference in Thunder history.

So, if we’re going to go down memory lane with the Thunder’s next playoff opponent, the Mavs’ history seems an easier pill to swallow.

Would you rather watch James Harden dribbling or Luka Doncic complaining?

This falls in the torture series of would-you-rather questions. You know, “Would you rather eat out of a garbage can for a week or starve for three days?” Or “Would you rather burn to death or drown?”

Watching Harden take seven bazillion dribbles before making a move in the final five seconds of the shot clock or seeing Luka throw up his hands and contort his face and whine to the officials every time he thinks a defender even touched him?

No one wins in either scenario.

But if we have to be tortured, I’d go with Harden’s dribbling. It isn’t as bad as it was when he was with the Rockets, though I’m not sure how it was ever that bad in the first place, and players who complain as much as Luka are like a never-ending symphony of fingernails on a chalkboard, a microphone squealing and a baby crying.

Hard pass.

Would you rather the Thunder match up against the Mavs or the Clips?

This is the big one. 

Both teams have superstars that have won titles, Kawhi when he was with the Spurs and Raptors, Kyrie Irving when he was with LeBron and the Cavaliers.

Even though they play vastly different styles, the Clippers leaning into an isolation-heavy offense and the Mavs eating a steady diet of pick and roll, neither team fared particularly well against the Thunder this season, winning only one game each during the regular season. 

The Mavs lost three of four games against the Thunder, though the last of those games probably shouldn’t carry much weight. It was the final game of the regular season, and the Mavs opted to rest pretty much every player with a pulse.

When I saw the available Mavs come out for warmups, I literally thought, “Does the NBA have a minimum for the number of players a team must have available for a game?”

(FYI: I could find no evidence the league does, COVID-related issues notwithstanding.)

But the other three games are worth dissecting. 

Dec. 2, Thunder 126, Mavs 120: This was the weird 30-0 run game. The Thunder took a comfortable lead into the fourth quarter, only to see the Mavs score 30 unanswered points and take the lead. But somehow, the Thunder rallied late to win the game.

Lots of people remember that about the game, but here’s something you might’ve forgotten: no Kyrie.

He was inactive that night, so Luka was the lone superstar.

Feb. 10, Mavs 146, Thunder 111: Dallas came out hot, scoring 47 points in the first quarter (the first quarter!) and never looking back. The 35-point loss was tied for OKC’s worse loss of the season, and the other 35-point loss came against Boston late in the regular season when SGA and Jalen Williams were sidelined with injuries.

Against Dallas that night in February, OKC had a full cast of characters and was coming off three days of rest. The Mavs were fully loaded, too, and even though they were coming off only one day of rest after a tough three-game road swing against the Sixers, Nets and Knicks, they dominated. Luka scored 32 points, and Kyrie had 25. SGA had only 17.

March 14, Thunder 126, Mavs 119: Back to another tight game, and another game without a Dallas superstar. Luka didn’t even travel to Oklahoma City for the game after suffering an injury in the Mavs’ previous game. But Kyrie and Co. kept it close.  Not until a Cason Wallace rebound led to a thundering Jalen Williams dunk did the Thunder slam the door with less than a minute remaining in the game.

Conclusion: If the Mavs have one of their superstars, the Thunder found itself in close games but managed to win, but in the one game the Mavs had both Luka and Kyrie, the Thunder struggled.

Now, let’s look at the Clippers’ three games against the Thunder. 

Dec. 21, Thunder 134, Clippers 115: This game will be remembered for Chet Holmgren’s lob off the backboard to himself for a dunkThat highlight-reel play sparked a big third quarter for the Thunder that gave it the breathing room to put away the Clippers, who were playing without Kawhi. Still, this was an early-season statement by the Thunder. It proved it could go toe-to-toe with teams expected to be at the top of the Western Conference.

Jan. 16, Clippers 128, Thunder 117: The Clippers were fully staffed that night, but it was PG, not Kawhi who had a big performance. George scored 38 points on 15-of-24 shooting, which included six 3-pointers. The Thunder didn’t get a great game from SGA, who managed only 19 points, the OKC bench was particularly ineffective. It combined to score only four points.

Feb. 22, Thunder 129, Clippers 107: Another game in which the Clippers were full speed, but this time, the Thunder held all three superstars in check. Kawhi scored 20 points, Harden 17 and PG 14.All five Thunder starters were in double digits, led by SGA’s 31 points. It was the Thunder’s first game after the All-Star Break and came amid what would become a six-game winning streak. 

Conclusion: The Thunder managed the Clippers even when they had all their superstars. Yes, OKC split the two games, but the Thunder was competitive in both and seemed to learn lessons that it applied in the second of those games.

The Thunder had success against both teams during the regular season, which portends well for these playoffs. But even though the Mavs have less playoff experience and less talent top to bottom on their roster than the Clippers, the Thunder seems better equipped to play the Clippers.

That’d mean lots of James Harden’s dribbling and storylines about players of the Thunder’s past meeting players of the Thunder’s current and future, but the tradeoff would be no Luka complaining.

Seems fair to me.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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