In a year that brought championship aspirations to the Staples Center—without having anything to do with purple and gold—the Los Angeles Clippers are facing elimination Saturday against the Golden State Warriors.
Beginning with the acquisition of Doc Rivers as the team's head coach, the trade for J.J. Redick to round out the starting lineup and continuing through Blake Griffin's ascension to superstardom, 2014 was supposed to be the Clips' time to leap into title contention.
And it still may be.
But after falling one basket shy of eliminating Golden State Thursday night, LA's back is now against the wall as well. And in must-win situations, a team's true stars are the ones who make the difference.
Which is why it'll be up to Blake Griffin and a hobbled Chris Paul to rescue the Clippers' 2014 title hopes. But are they up to the task?
In Paul's particular case, it may be the biggest playoff accomplishment of his career. After separating his shoulder in January and spraining his thumb in February, he's now dealing with a hamstring injury and a recent illness that has affected him this series.
The thumb and hamstring ailments seem to be affecting Paul the most, impairing the most crucial parts of his game: speed, ball-handling and passing.
“He does have injuries,” Rivers said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “There's no doubt about that.”
According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, Paul understands that he'll need to deal with the injuries if he wants to make a deep playoff push for the first time in his career.
Nobody cares about your [injured] hamstring. Nobody cares if you're sick or anything like that. I'm tired of going home early. It's whatever I have to do.
When you win, everything just feels a lot better. When you win games, all that stuff is aching and hurting.
Over his nine-year career, Paul has never gotten past the second round of the postseason as a member of the Clippers or the New Orleans Hornets.
He's coming off his worst performance of the postseason in Game 6, hampered by those injuries and limited to 34 minutes. He managed just nine points on 3-of-10 shooting. With his understudy, Darren Collison, shooting just 39 percent this postseason—including 16.7 percent from deep—Paul knows his team's fortune will be largely up to him buckling down.
Paul will need to at least somewhat contain Stephen Curry on the other end, who has averaged 21 points and eight dimes this postseason, including a 16-point, 15-assist performance in Game 3.
In last year's unsuccessful elimination game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Paul had one of the best games of his playoff career, posting 28 points and eight assists on 11-of-16 shooting. Though it wasn't enough, Paul did his part in keeping the team's playoff hopes alive. Griffin logged only 13 minutes in that game due to a sprained ankle, and DeAndre Jordan played only 17 minutes.
Exactly one year, to the day, later, Paul will look to reverse the team's fortune.
But he presumably won't be able to do it alone, especially not in his current condition. Blake Griffin is healthy, unlike last year's postseason, and has the opportunity to make his mark on the postseason for the first time as a bona fide star.
As a 23-year-old, he was a member of the 2012 Clips unit that made it to the second round only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Now a much more polished all-around player, Griffin has the power to take matters into his own hands when necessary.
As part of the territory, teams now key in on Griffin throughout the half court, and the Warriors are no different. Since turning to a smaller lineup to better match up with the Clips' athleticism, Golden State has altered Griffin's scoring.
He's been held to just 42 percent shooting since Draymond Green subbed in for Jermaine O'Neal as a starter and only 36.8 percent over Games 5 and 6. He's scored just 35 points in those two games combined.
|FGM||FGA||FG%||REB/36 mins||TO/36 mins|
|Green Off Court||24||40||60%||6.9||1.7|
|Green On Court||32||67||47.8%||6.9||3.3|
In the series, while Green has been on the floor for Golden State, the Clippers have scored 16 less points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. With Green sitting, Griffin has been nearly unstoppable in 63 minutes, shooting 60 percent, including 17 of 25 inside 10 feet.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), in the 140 minutes the two players have shared the floor, Griffin has shot below his season average at 47.8 percent, including 22-of-39 shooting within 10 feet. Stopping a player of Griffin's ability is virtually impossible, but Green's athletic presence on the floor has contained him to the point where the Warriors can manage his output.
There's hardly any way around it: The Clippers will need Griffin to find a way around Golden State's pressure in order to advance.
If Paul and Griffin can sync up timely, gutsy performances in Game 7, the Clippers shouldn't have trouble defending home court and moving on to the conference semifinals, where the winner of Oklahoma City and Memphis' own Game 7 will be waiting.
But Golden State is aware of this too. And what's most concerning for Rivers' bunch, as seen over the last few games, is that the Dubs have the players to match up with the Clips' dynamic pair.
In Green and David Lee, Mark Jackson has his offensive and defensive forwards that can contend with Griffin. In Curry, he has one of the league's best guards, and one that could outplay Paul if injuries prove to get the better of him.
If Paul and Griffin rise to the occasion and put up the Game 7 performances they're truly capable of, the Clippers will advance past Golden State. On the flip side, if Los Angeles fails to come out on top, it'll be a long summer for those two, in particular.