Golden State Warriors vs. L.A. Clippers: Western Conference Round 1 Preview

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Golden State Warriors vs. L.A. Clippers: Western Conference Round 1 Preview
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The Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors will finally meet in what promises to be a great postseason matchup. Although the word “rivalry” does not yet apply, there is definitely something brewing between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

Recent regular-season matchups have prompted multiple hard fouls, ejections and technical fouls. And yet, this isn’t your standard New York Knicks and Miami Heat bloodbath from the late 1990s. When the Warriors and Clippers meet, it’s typically a display of wizardry from arguably the two-best point guards in basketball.

The Clippers' Chris Paul tears through defensive schemes with his ability to consistently occupy two defenders. He always turns the corner with just the right amount of speed, which allows for teammates to find open areas for catch-and-scores.

The other guard in this matchup is just as destructive, but in ways that defy conventional wisdom. The Warriors' Stephen Curry is so proficient from three-point range that forcing him to score on layups is the best strategy to contain him. Read that sentence over again and grasp the sheer ridiculousness involved in it.

The guard play has made the battles between both teams quite compelling, and it’s probably fair to assume the trend will continue in their opening-round matchup.

Golden State and L.A. are also among the best defensive teams in the league, but it hasn’t mattered when they've gone head-to-headin three of the four regular-season contests between these two this season, the victor has scored north of 110 points.

Paul and Curry certainly do a great job of pushing the pace, and it helps that their supporting casts are more than willing to get out and run with them. 

 

Seeds: Los Angeles Clippers (No. 3); Golden State Warriors (No. 6)

Records: Los Angeles Clippers (57-25); Golden State Warriors (51-31)

Season Series: 2-2

 

Playoff Series Schedule 

  • Game 1 - Saturday, April 19, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
  • Game 2 - Monday, April 21, 10:30 p.m. (TNT)
  • Game 3 - Thursday, April 24, 10:30 p.m. (TNT)
  • Game 4 - Sunday, April 27, p.m. (ABC)
  • Game 5 (if necessary) - Tuesday, April 29, TBD 
  • Game 6 (if necessary) - Thursday, May 1, TBD 
  • Game 7 (if necessary) - Saturday, May 3, TBD (TNT)

 

Key Storyline For Golden State Warriors

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Health, or lack of it, is the biggest storyline emerging from the Bay Area.

Andrew Bogut fractured a rib late during the regular season, and it appears as though he will miss the playoffs, unless the Dubs go on a magical deep run.

Per NBA.com, the injury should take roughly six weeks to heal, which would have Bogut triumphantly rejoining his teammates around Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals were they to make it that far.

Some might wonder whether it’s possible for him to simply “suck it up” and play through the pain, but the consequences could be life threatening. Bogut discussed the potenital danger with the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com):

I've got to be careful, because if it cracks I'm looking at a punctured lung. You'll see me in the hospital with a tube coming out of me. It's one of those things people have played through, but this is too close to comfort for me.

The Warriors will likely play the entire series without its starting center, which complicates things for head coach Mark Jackson.

What’s more, Andre Iguodala missed the final two games of the season because of tendinitis in his right knee. Iguodala should be ready to go by Game 1, but it’s entirely possible that his play might suffer. That makes for an interesting dilemma given that Jackson probably wants Iguodala blanketing Chris Paul.

Luckily for Golden State, it’s possible that Festus Ezeli will be available for the playoffs. According to Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News, Ezeli has begun doing one-on-one drills and could start practicing very soon. The backup big man was a nice piece for the team last season, but a knee injury resulted in him missing the entire 2013-14 campaign.

 

Key Storyline for Los Angeles Clippers

Tony Avelar

Until Blake Griffin demonstrates that he is not to be trifled with, many will continue to question his toughness.

Last summer, former teammate Chauncey Billups offered these poignant words about Griffin on ESPN’s "First Take":

I don't agree that Blake Griffin is soft. But what I will say about Blake is that he's maybe too nice of a guy. Because there's been times in games where people take shots at Blake. And I tell him if that's me, you're going to have to take this two- or three-game suspension, and I'm going to punish somebody.

The Warriors got physical with Griffin this year, and he never really quite defended himself. What’s more, Griffin finished the season tied for the league lead in technical fouls, per ESPN.com, which could be construed as him fighting back through the officials as opposed to confronting his opponents directly.

Klay Thompson poured gasoline onto this fire in an interview with "The Wheelhouse" on 95.7 The Game radio in San Francisco (h/t Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles):

He flairs his arm around so you know you might catch a random elbow or something that doesn't you know rub off too well on guys. He's kind of like a bull in a china shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you do just see him flop sometimes like how can a guy that big and strong flop that much.

Intentional or not, Thompson has issued a challenge to Griffin. The Clippers forward will be closely observed and scrutinized if he looks at the referees to bail him out by flopping.

There is no doubt that Golden State will more than likely attempt to rough him up a little. Griffin’s ability to handle this adversity will be a major plot point throughout the course of the series.

 

The X-Factors

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

It may seem unlikely, but Draymond Green will play a big part in this series. Golden State’s reserve big man is arguably the most versatile player on the roster given his ability to defend multiple positions.

Although he isn’t a lockdown defender like LeBron James, Mark Jackson will certainly have you believe Green is so based on words he shared with Leung: “Those two guys have the size, the strength, the knowledge, the competitive spirit in my opinion to do that [defend all five positions].”

Green has been an irritant for Griffin, and that could certainly throw Griffin off his game. In addition, Green has improved his jumper to the point that Jackson trusts him a little more in late-game situations.

To be clear, Green is not great offensive player, but the Warriors can throw him out there and still run a functional offense. Teams essentially ignored him last season, whereas now defenses must at least be cognizant that he is out there.

According to Basketball-Reference, Green has made 11 of 22 treys (50 percent) in April. Granted, that’s only a span of nine games, but it bears keeping an eye on.

If Green is hitting long-range shots, the Clippers will have to decide which approach is more prudent: throw a double-team at Curry and watch Green connect from long range, or allow Curry to turn the corner in the pick-and-roll and get into the paint, where he can cause havoc by scoring or dishing.

Green will play a big part for Golden State, but he might not be everyone’s pick to play the role of unlikely hero. Some might be inclined to look at Harrison Barnes to swing the series, but it appears as though that ship has sailed.

Barnes has regressed and seems to lack confidence in his abilities. Despite an uptick in minutes, his statistical contributions have not increased. Have a look below:

Harrison Barnes Career Stats
Season MPG PPG RPG FG%
2012-13 25.4 9.2 4.1 .439
2013-14 28.3 9.5 4.0 .399

Basketball-Reference

What’s more, Barnes’ struggles have increased in the second half of the season. Per NBA.com, Barnes averaged 7.9 points on 36.4 percent shooting post All-Star break this year.

Keep in mind, these numbers include his 30-point explosion in the season finale against the Denver Nuggets, thus demonstrating the enigma that Barnes has been this year. There is no reason to expect anything different in the postseason.

Much like Golden State, Los Angeles will attach its fate to one of its role players: J.J. Redick.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Redick just seems to make everything fit because of his torrid shooting. He forces defenders to key in on him, which gives Paul and Griffin opportunities to run pick-and-rolls that conclude in high-percentage looks.

In the event opponents rotate off Redick, he makes them pay from long range, and he is a great barometer of the team’s success. Have a quick look at his splits:

J.J. Redick Production By Outcome
Outcome PPG FG% 3PT FG%
Wins 16.1 .511 .467
Losses 11.4 .341 .262

NBA.com

Redick’s jump shot makes the Clippers offense operate at another level. It gives L.A. the floor spacing it desperately needs to give Paul and Griffin all the necessary creases to torture defenses.

Interestingly enough, Redick’s offense tends to get the glory, but his defense is just as important. Indeed, he is terrific at chasing shooters through screens and closing out on them. Watch below as he trails Klay Thompson:

Redick barely gave Thompson room to break in the above video, which makes catch-and-shoot situations practically non-existent. In related news, Thompson has only made nine of 21 shots against the Clippers when Redick has played.

 

Key Matchup: Stephen Curry Vs. Chris Paul

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Chris Paul has been sensational against Stephen Curry this season, and if his prowess carries over to the playoffs, the Warriors will be going home early. Per NBA.com, Paul averaged 28 points, 12.7 assists and 3.7 steals on 47.3 percent shooting in three games versus the Dubs.

If Paul is allowed to visit the spots he prefers on the floor, the Clippers will get all of the shots they want. He is incredibly difficult to corral as a playmaker, which allows role players to get easy looks.

When Paul shifts into scoring mode, that’s an entirely different can of worms. Defensive breakdowns become the norm, because Paul shatters whatever principles are in place to slow him down.

For instance, when defenders commit early in pick-and-roll coverage, Paul can attack the paint for a floater or settle for a mid-range jumper.

In the event the opposition is slow to react to his moves, Paul simply explodes and gets all the way to the hoop for a score. Watch him beat Thompson off the dribble below:

Because opponents are so concerned with Paul feeding the likes of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for highlight dunks, they might not vigorously rotate toward Paul. This has been an issue for the Warriors, and Paul has toyed with them as a result.

Danny Moloshok

Paul’s exploits put a huge spotlight on his counterpart, as Curry will have to play perhaps the best series of his life in order for the Warriors to advance. There are simply too many question marks for the Dubs, and Curry must become the equalizer.

Harrison Barnes likely won’t give the team much scoring given his struggles, while Thompson might have trouble getting open against Redick.

David Lee is certainly capable of putting up points, but he averaged 4.3 fouls against L.A. this season, per NBA.com, a clear sign that he might sit more than the team anticipates.

That essentially places the offensive burden on Curry. He must live up to his nickname of Human Torch and outplay Paul for the Warriors to advance.

Curry’s flammable nature will force the Clippers to defend him with two defenders at all times, which will open up the floor and allow others to become efficient scorers.

See below how Curry spoon-feeds David Lee:

Curry’s brilliant passing will certainly play an immense role in the Dubs’ success, and so will his scoring. There’s no other way around it: Curry has to be the best player on the floor throughout the series to give Golden State a shot at advancing.

No one else on the roster can match his combination of creativity, fearlessness and production.

 

Predictions

The Clippers will defeat the Warriors in six games.

Ultimately, the absence of Andrew Bogut will be impossible to ignore. Bogut could potentially slow down Griffin, but since it appears as though he won’t be seen at all in this series, it stands to reason that Griffin will have his way with Golden State’s frontcourt.

The Warriors will need firepower, and Curry is the one that has to supply it. One can see him performing as Paul’s superior for perhaps two games, but not four.

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