We are at the halfway point of the NBA season, the post-Christmas, pre-trade deadline phase of the campaign where you can start to take the standings seriously and form more load-bearing evaluations of who is actually good. To that end, Tuesday night’s tripleheader provided a few meaningful samples, as all six teams involved played at playoff intensity. The Suns, who’ve looked like bullshit for large stretches of this season and most of their game yesterday, are maybe not as bullshit as they seem when they commit to playing a small lineup with Kevin Durant at center; the Kings are eminently stoppable if you can shut off Domantas Sabonis’s creation; Philadelphia can reach a pretty imposing level on defense even with Tyrese Maxey in the lineup; the Clippers’ peak level might be better than any other team in the league’s. A big reason for that last one is that, in the sorts of games where both teams sell out to take away their opponents’ best stuff, there’s hardly an answer for a locked-in Paul George.

L.A. hosted the Thunder on Tuesday, a Millennials vs. Zoomers proxy conflict between the NBA’s oldest and youngest teams that absolutely lived up to its billing as a possible Western Conference Finals preview and gave us our most meaningful takeaway of the night. The Clippers won, 128-117, though the final score belies how closely contested this one was. OKC played 12 guys and shot the hell out of the ball, with Jalen Williams (who, though the TNT broadcast was briefly confused, is a different guy than Jaylin Williams; if only there was reference material on this) and Lu Dort going off. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was uncharacteristically bad (a game-worst minus-19) thanks to a concerted Clippers effort to slow him down, which is part of what made the game so good—both coaches were eagerly trying stuff and introducing new wrinkles, the sort you don’t normally see in a regular-season game.

For the Thunder, it was surprise moments of aggression on defense and a bunch of unorthodox guard-guard screen angles for Gilgeous-Alexander, while the Clippers put Mason Plumlee on Josh Giddey and ran a ton of off-ball stuff to keep the defense moving. All this scheming and counter-scheming forces teams to learn some new tricks, and what was most impressive about the Clippers was how adaptable they were. This team has been infuriatingly rigid for a long time, which is a real bummer given Ty Lue’s gifts as a tactician and the team’s playoff-focused team-building philosophy. The Thunder’s gambit was pressuring Kawhi Leonard and James Harden on the ball, which was both a first-order success, as they were both relatively quiet, and an ultimately fatal tactical decision, as Paul George went totally nuts with a monstrous 38-point, five-dime, three-steal night on 15-for-24 shooting. He was usually the beneficiary of the Thunder’s pressure, as they’d harass Harden off the ball, only for the Clippers to follow the logic tree for a couple of passes until George got it in rhythm, wide open in the corner.

George scored 18 in the final quarter, though he won the Clippers the game with an 11-point, two-minute burst that began after the Thunder took an 115-114 lead. It started with a post seal on Lu Dort for an and-one, continued with a stepback in Dort’s eye, and culminated in a breathtaking sequence where he nailed a catch-and-shoot after Dort helped in the middle, shimmied down the court, then ripped it from Gilgeous-Alexander and sealed it with a 180 dunk. Again, Dort is a great defender, and while George was hot enough that the Clippers were running some stuff for him, he spends most of his time as the third option when the Clippers are playing their best lineups,

That’s terrifying to think about dealing with in the playoffs. Leonard is playing like one of the best five players in the league, and is as unguardable one-on-one as any wing in the league. After flirting with various conformations of smallball lineups, they pretty much always play with a center now, which helps the aging stars stay healthy. Harden’s introduction, rocky as the start was, lubricates a once-arid offense and makes it so they almost always have three shooters on the floor. Russell Westbrook is still huge and zooming, and you can’t get away with playing any small guards against this team. Maybe the better defensive teams in the West—like the Wolves, who beat them earlier this week—have the one-on-one chops to harangue Leonard and Harden without bending the rest of their defense, but you still have to account for George bombing away. He’s third in the flowchart, only ever shoots in the flow of the offense, and is a gifted off-ball mover in a system that finally allows for off-ball movement for what feels like the first-ever time in its modern form.

The league’s best teams present unanswerable questions, forcing you to take dubious gambits like letting Derrick White cook freely or leaving Jamal Murray covered without real help. If the playoffs are about taking your opponents’ best stuff away, series can be decided by how good the next-best stuff is. The Clippers know this as well as anyone, as they got to the 2021 Conference Finals in part by punishing Utah for putting Rudy Gobert on Terance Mann. If the decision tree leads to a team accepting that giving Paul George time and space to do whatever he wants is OK, then that just shows how well-built the Clippers are.

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