The Golden State Warriors (51-31) had one of the best seasons in franchise history and are welcomed into the playoffs with a first round matchup with their bitter rivals, the Pacific Division Champion Los Angeles Clippers. There is absolutely no love lost between these two franchises. There will be bumps, bruises, technical fouls, and I am sure a fight or two. This will be a heated battle, and I am guessing this will be the most physical series of any of the first round playoff matchups.
Here is a breakdown of each position heading into this series:
Point Guard: All-Star Stephen Curry is the unquestioned leader of the Warriors; he is the all-around offensive threat that makes the Warriors engine run. All-Star Chris Paul is similar in that respect to the Clippers. He is a creator on offense, his speed breaks down defenses, and he exudes leadership by example on the floor. These two are, without a doubt, two of the best point guards in the game and will be for the foreseeable future. However these two play in completely different styles. Curry has one of the best shooting strokes to have ever graced the game of basketball. He is a scorer and can take over a game with his superior shooting skill from anywhere on the court. Paul makes everyone around him better with his superior dribbling and passing skills, and his ability to drive and get to the hoop makes him a danger every time down the floor. Paul is a much better defender than Curry with his quick hands. However, Curry is a dominant outside scorer compared to Paul and can take over a game with his shot making ability.
Advantage: Even. Both players are at the top of their game and are going to be exciting to watch.
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson has grown his game by leaps and bounds in the past two seasons. He went from being primarily just an outside shooter to rounding out his game as a solid defender and is now starting to notice that most guards cannot defend against his length and ability. The Clippers have a two-headed monster at this position with J.J. Reddick and Jamal Crawford. Both are volume shooters that can change a game with their ability to score from the outside. However, neither of them is aware that there is a defensive side to the game and can be overwhelmed at times when their shots are not dropping in the hoop. Klay can also become a volume shooter, but his confidence has grown in the past few months and has been a different player under Coach Mark Jackson.
Advantage: Warriors. Crawford and Reddick are great scorers, but Thompson can do that and play defense.
Small Forward: Andre Iguodala was the big off-season acquisition for the Warriors, and he played fairly well in his new role with the team. Iguodala is a “shut-down” defender that plays with high energy throughout the game. However, he is also starting to show signs of wear and has missed several games with a knee and hamstring injury this season. Iguodala had to accept in his new role that he is not the first, second, or third option for the Warriors offense and has made up for the lack of offensive output with tremendous defensive skills and leadership on the court. The Clippers small forward position is mostly by committee with Matt Barnes as the starter. Barnes is a charismatic player on the court; he plays with intensity and has great defensive skills. Barnes is not the greatest shooter, but he can make the clutch shot when necessary. Barnes can also get too emotional on the floor and can hurt his team with his reckless play and poor judgment on shot selection. Barnes is an emotional player, while Iguodala is a more calm and collected player that makes calculated decisions on the floor. Too many emotions can be dangerous in the playoffs.
Advantage: Warriors. Iguodala has the experience factor, and I would not be shocked if we see a higher emphasis placed on his offense in the series.
Power Forward: Warriors power forward David Lee is the double-double machine – he is almost a lock to get the team 20 points and ten rebounds in every game. Lee has a great inside post move and has a knack for getting to the hoop. Even though he gets a high volume of rebounds, he is not known as a defensive stalwart and can be taken advantage of by bigger and stronger forwards. Lee is also coming off a lower back-hamstring nerve injury and has been slow to recover. The Clippers boast having the All-Star Blake Griffin at Power Forward. As Thompson said, he is the “bull in the china shop”. He plays the power game and is not afraid to back down a defender and drive right past for a ferocious dunk. Griffin plays the game above the rim and has tremendous speed and power. Griffin does have a few flaws, however, as his outside shot is not very solid, and his free throw shooting – while better this season – is still subpar. It will be interesting to see these two contrasting styles and if Lee’s hamstring will hold up throughout the series.
Advantage: Clippers. Griffin is just too dominant on offense for Lee right now, and the Warriors will have to look at options on how to defend Griffin’s high-flying ability.
Center: The Warriors will be without the services of Andrew Bogut for at least the first round of the playoffs with a fractured rib. Many have questioned why Bogut is not playing or why was he in the game against Portland when the opportunity to get the five seed was a long shot. Bogut is a competitor and did not want to come out of the game at any point. Also, anyone that has had a broken rib will tell you that everything hurts when you have that injury – even breathing is painful. The Warriors will go with veteran Jermaine O’Neal, who has had a career resurgence for the Warriors this year and has intimated that this may be his last ride in the NBA. O’Neal will be playing for his basketball life and that drive for a championship ring. O’Neal is an intelligent player and has a decent range jump shot. He’s a veteran and has already been in several playoff wars, and his body is beginning to show it. Andre Jordan of the Clippers is a relative newcomer to the big stage and has tremendous physical ability. Jordan has a great inside move and always seems to be around the hoop when it matters the most. Jordan is a solid rebounder and, much like Griffin, plays the game above the rim. Jordan does have one Achilles heel: he is a terrible foul shooter, so expect the Warriors to put him on the line a good amount with a few hard fouls.
Advantage: Clippers. Jordan has youth, size, and ability in his corner. The Warriors may be able to expose Jordan’s free throw shooting woes, but it may be at the expense of losing a player to the bench.
Bench Play: The bench play for Golden State has been a roller coaster of emotions for any Warriors fan. The bench on occasion shows flashes of brilliance, but also shows flashes of incompetence. The Warriors bench is lead by second-year players Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes who have gone in opposite directions this season. Green has stepped up his game and been a solid spot starter, while Barnes has struggled in his new role and some games just looked defeated on the floor. The Warriors made great acquisitions during the season with Jordan Crawford and Steve Blake, and they’ve been able to give the Warriors a solid offensive boost, but the bench is routinely outscored on a nightly basis. Many basketball insiders have made comments that if the Warriors did not have to substitute players every game, they would never lose. The Clippers on the other hand have one of the best benches in all of the NBA with reserves that may be starters on most teams in the league. The bench play for the Clippers has been superb, and they basically have about a ten-man rotation with reserves that can mix and match with the starters.
Advantage: Clippers. LA has a much stronger bench and have outscored other teams reserves in almost every game. The Warriors bench is just too erratic at this point and need to find confidence that they belong in this series.
Coaching: Warriors coach Mark Jackson is a players coach; he does not yell too much, he does not get on officials, and you will never see him get a technical; he is basically a guide for the players. Clippers coach Doc Rivers is the complete opposite; he has no problem getting in his players faces, he is constantly working the referees, and I am sure he will get at least two or three technical fouls in this series. Rivers has NBA finals pedigree, and has actually hoisted the championship trophy. Jackson has the belief in his system from the players but is in only his third playoff series as a coach. Many critics say that Jackson is too laid back, but the numbers have shown that his style works with over 100 wins in the past two seasons, including playoffs. Rivers is passionate about his players, and it shows: after every game, the man has no voice in the post game press conference and always looks spent that he had given his team his all.
Advantage: Clippers. The advantage for Rivers is purely due to the fact that he has won the big games and showcased his talents on the biggest stage – the NBA Finals.
Fans and Arena: This is absolutely no contest. Hands down, the Golden State Warriors fan base and the Oracle Arena crowds are by FAR the most rowdy and raucous basketball crowds to ever exist in the NBA. The Clippers play at beautiful Staples Arena, but they really do not have a home feel to the team since they are the second act to the LA Lakers in their own stadium. The Warriors have sold out every game at Oracle Arena for basically the last two seasons, and visiting commentators have been known to lose their train of thought due to the sheer noise of the stadium.
Advantage: Warriors. The fans and arena will be a huge factor in this series. The Warriors will have 19,000 fans standing and screaming throughout the game. This is a huge emotional edge for Golden State.
This will be a huge series for all fans of the NBA. There will be fouls, there will be tremendous displays of offense with high-flying dunks and long-range jumpers, there will be smiles, and tears of sadness. The teams are fairly evenly matched up. Now it is time to see who are the true leaders in California.