A trip to the second round is so close the Golden State Warriors can taste it. The only problem is that the Los Angeles Clippers can, too, and the Pacific Division champs have more mouths to feed and more muscle to fight to the front of the serving line.
Golden State will face an uphill climb when these two teams reconvene for a winner-take-all Game 7 Saturday night (10:30 p.m. ET on TNT).
Undermanned, undersized and (in this series) probably under-talented, the Warriors are lucky to still be alive. It isn't often they can survive a 9-of-24 shooting night by All-Star Stephen Curry, let alone a team-wide 39.3 percent performance from the field.
Yet, with their backs against the wall, this group found a way to ward off elimination with a nail-biting 100-99 victory in Thursday's Game 6.
Down three of their big uglies (Andrew Bogut, rib; Festus Ezeli, knee; and Jermaine O'Neal, who exited with a knee injury in the second quarter), you'd assume the Warriors would have to win pretty. The game couldn't have been more grotesque, which shows both the growth of this team and the havoc it can create when things do go according to plan.
So, what exactly is that plan? Well, let's just say another sub-40 percent shooting effort will leave this front office starving for the main course success it's been so desperately chasing.
The Dubs proved they don't need perfection, but they might need something close to it in front of a hostile Staples Center crowd. If perfection is the preferred dish, these are the key ingredients to bring it all together.
All-Star Stephen Curry might not be enough to pull off this upset. Heck, superstar Stephen Curry could still leave the Warriors falling short.
Golden State needs cheat-code-enabled video game Stephen Curry, the one who treats the idea of shooting range like a personal challenge to test his limits. The one who used and abused the Clippers for 33 points (including seven triples), seven rebounds and seven assists in the Warriors' 118-97 Game 4 win.
After he crash-landed to a 17-point, 10-shot effort in Golden State's 113-103 loss in Game 5, his importance to this team's success became apparent as ever.
"The Warriors, underdogs to begin with after finishing lower in the standings and now playing without the defense and snarly attitude of Andrew Bogut, really have no chance to advance if their offensive star is that neutralized," NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper wrote.
The 6'3" sniper aggressively sought out shots in Game 6. His 24 field-goal attempts were the most he's had in these playoffs and tied for the ninth most he's fired off all season.
That's a great sign for the Warriors, even if the 37.5 percentage mark is anything but. If Golden State winds up going down in a blaze, it has to know its flamethrower was given every opportunity to ignite.
With a shooter of his caliber (career .467/.440/.896 slash line), attempts are almost more important than makes. He'll find his touch sooner than later, particularly with Clippers point god Chris Paul having an obviously tough time dealing with a nagging hamstring injury.
"He's dealing with a lot of stuff," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of his floor general, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, "but, listen, he's on the floor and Golden State doesn't care, bottom line."
Well, the Warriors absolutely do care.
The more problems Paul encounters, the closer Curry's human-torch mode comes to reality. If Paul's body can't handle Curry, that's an issue—because reserve guard Darren Collison's skill set isn't up for the job:
Even with that 33-point assault on his stat sheet, this postseason has yet to see Curry at his best. He's cracked the 30-point barrier once in six playoff games. He had three such efforts in his first seven appearances last postseason, averaging an absurd 35 points (on 55.4 percent shooting) and 10.3 assists in those contests.
If Curry brings his "A+" game, then what happens around him might prove inconsequential. If he grades out a "B" or lower, though, the Warriors might as well stick a fork in themselves.
If he's anywhere in the middle, he'll need some help. Plenty of it, in fact, at both ends of the floor.
Heaping Helpings of Support
This needs to be a ponchos-required kind of game. In other words, the Warriors have to get their Splash Brothers, well, splashing.
Their equipment manager might be in jeopardy, because it's looked like the team is down to a single wetsuit.
Curry's three lowest-scoring games of the series (14 in Game 1, 16 in Game 3 and 17 in Game 5) are Klay Thompson's three highest (22, 26 and 21, respectively). Conversely, when Curry has busted loose (24 points in Game 2, 33 in Game 4 and 24 in Game 6), then Thompson has fallen silent (seven, 15 and nine, respectively).
The third-year sharpshooter is more than a long-range specialist, but his overall involvement often seems tied to his three-point success. When his shot goes awry, the rest of his game often follows, as was the case Thursday night:
This lack of cohesion is a troubling trend, but I'm not sure for whom.
Should the Warriors be panicked that their backcourt can't find a collective rhythm, or should the Clippers be terrified of what might happen if they do? I'd venture to guess it's the latter.
If Thompson and Curry are hitting on Saturday, it might be curtains for Hollywood. Better for the Warriors to hedge their bets, though, and look to get as many hands in the pot as possible.
With the aforementioned holes in the frontcourt, David Lee needs to provide a strong presence on the glass. His assignment sheet for Game 7 is longer than just that, though.
If he can pack some type of scoring punch near the basket, he'll cut down on Clippers shot-blocking center DeAndre Jordan's opportunities to roam. Usually, you can tell fairly early in the contest what type of scorer Lee will be on that particular night:
If Lee can avoid foul trouble, I think 15 points is a good number for him to target. The Warriors have won two of the three games in which he's scored at least that much in this series.
One promising trend over the past three outings has been the emergence of an offensively aggressive Andre Iguodala.
Golden State's prized pull from the 2013 offseason had an uncharacteristically quiet debut campaign (9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists). His game doesn't always translate to the stat sheets, but it still felt like he was an untapped source of production.
Well, the Warriors are tapping into it now. He's contributed 18.3 points, 6.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds during this stretch (up from 7.7, 3.0 and 3.7, respectively in the first three games) and shown what type of weapon he can be at the offensive end:
Defensively, his assignment list is still long, whether that's chasing J.J. Redick around screens or trying to contain Jamal Crawford's off-the-dribble game. Iguodala's worth is still tied heaviest to that end of the floor, but truthfully the team will need a strong two-way game out of him.
The same could be said for Draymond Green or, as Magic Johnson apparently likes to call him, "mini-Magic." (And we thought Mark Jackson's Green-LeBron James comparison was hyperbolic.)
Johnson waxed poetically about his fellow Michigan State Spartan during a speaking engagement earlier this week in Michigan.
"He's almost like a mini-Magic. You can't judge Draymond by how many points he scores," the Hall of Famer said, via Hugh Bernreuter of MLive.com. "... What separates Draymond is that he's one of the smartest players right now in the NBA."
Outside of Green's incessant beating of a nonexistent three-point drum (he's three of 21 from deep in the series), it's tough to argue with Johnson's assessment. Also a favorite of coach Tom Izzo , Green makes the most of his natural ability by gladly accepting the jobs some try to avoid: crashing the glass, hitting the deck for loose balls, sharing the rock or, yes, even harassing All-Star forward Blake Griffin at the defensive end:
The Warriors aren't still alive in this series without special performances from Green. They won't escape from it without another one.
This will have to be the type of blood, sweat and tears style that Jackson preaches. If the extent of the coach's involvement is firing up his troops, a Warriors win could be a real possibility.
Teaspoon of Mark Jackson
He snoozes in film study. His rotations sometimes defy logic. He'll let a team grab momentum by failing to call a run-stopping timeout or take his team out of an offensive rhythm by deploying a steady stream of ball-stopping isolations:
Jackson's seat is hot for a reason, but the impact he has on his players is just as obvious.
"I love coach and everything he's about," Curry said earlier this season, via Bay Area News Group's Marcus Thompson II.
Jackson's in-game skills are questionable at best, but it's hard to find a better motivator in the business. He has his players believing in themselves and, more importantly, believing in his direction.
He might not have the straightest path to the podium, but he's sold his players on a vision and they're willing to follow his lead.
"We are going to a Game 7 despite all the sideline music, and I like my chances because I've got a group of guys that want to do whatever it takes to win," he said, via ESPN.com news services.
This is Jackson at his best, boosting his team's ego before a battle it doesn't really have the bodies to win. Confidence can go a long way in elimination games, particularly when paired with the offensive firepower and defensive toughness this roster has.
Hopefully, this is where he starts to ease up on the gas. As long as his team is ready for war (and it will be), then Jackson's work is done.
It won't be an easy road to the second round, but it's a fairly obvious one.
Curry needs to dominate, and he probably needs three really good performances out of his top four supporting players (Thompson, Lee, Iguodala and Lee). One off-night is probably manageable, but any more than that would be highly problematic (if not impossible to overcome).
The Warriors are right where they want to be: in complete control of their own destiny. They know the challenge that lies ahead, it's on them to embrace it—then conquer it.