POSTED: Apr 17, 2014 8:52 AM ET
Physical play will likely be the norm in the Clippers-Warriors first-round series.
Now we have a rivalry.
The four meetings between the Clippers and Warriors this season were rollicking fun, with each team winning twice at home while running scoreboard operators dizzy with at least one team scoring 111 points or more in three of the four games. And the scuffles. Of course the scuffles.
But for all the questions both sides got the last 5½ months about the rising level of agitation, there can never be an actual rivalry until the friction of a playoff showdown (and advancing in the postseason) is on the docket.
The Warriors and Clippers already had the antagonism. Now they have the playoffs to make it real.
1. Is Chris Paul all the way back? If he's not, he's doing a pretty good imitation. The best point guard in the world returned Feb. 9 (after missing 18 games with a separated right shoulder), took time to regain his rhythm and conditioning, then shot 52.4 percent while averaging 20.5 ppg and 8.7 apg in his last six pre-playoff tuneups. The assists were down from his season (and league-leading) mark of 10.7 apg, but the drop off is hardly a concern.
2. What will the Warriors do at center? They're down to starting Jermaine O'Neal, going small with David Lee for as long as Andrew Bogut is sidelined, or rosary beads. The good news is the Warriors can fill the other spots, with the depth of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes at either forward spot. Losing the defense of Bogut, though, cannot be replaced.
3. How much trouble would the Clippers have countering small ball? Pretty close to none at all. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are great athletes at center and power forward, respectively. The Warriors can spread the court and force L.A.'s bigs to come out to defend the perimeter, but Golden State won't be able to out-run the bigger Clippers. In fact, the Warriors may be smaller and still have to worry about getting beat in transition.
4. Does Warriors coach Mark Jackson's job depend on winning this series? A lot of factors will be considered -- if the Warriors are competitive against a title contender, whether Bogut plays and at what level -- but owner Joe Lacob has made it clear he expects to build on last season's West semifinal finish. Losing a round earlier than 2013 would be going backward.
5. Is there a better head-to-head matchup in the first round than Paul-Stephen Curry?
No. And there may not be many in any round.
Yeah, Lob City. They love to put defenders on posters or, short of that, at least put a real burn in the legs of opponents from having to backpedal at full speed. But the Clips are more than that. Paul can ruin defenses running pick-and-roll too, and Griffin's much-improved perimeter game and perimeter ball-handling skills makes him a choice partner.
Even if Bogut misses most/all of the series, the Warriors still have defenders. Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson in particular can keep Golden State in the series. Both will likely get time on Paul despite the size difference. Jackson needs a lot of things to go right to advance. Slowing CP3 with big bodies would be a big step in that direction.
Golden State will be dangerous on offense. Exactly to who remains to be seen. This is the team that puts up big scoring numbers, shoots well overall and shoots very well from behind the arc thanks to Thompson and Curry. But, Golden State also has serious turnover problems. Acquiring Steve Blake from the Lakers at the trade deadline to become the backup point guard has helped that.
The Clippers will be waiting. Coach Doc Rivers said at the start of the season he would emphasize perimeter defense, and he delivered on the promise. L.A. went from No. 26 in 3-point defense last season to No. 1 in 2013-14.
Neither team is good at the line, an issue in close games, but the Clippers are among the worst in the league. That's a surprising statement for a team with the likes of Paul, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison and, for part of the season, Danny Granger. But, there Jordan (42.8 percent), Jared Dudley (66.5) and Griffin (71.5) are the ones who hurt at the stripe. Down the stretch, the Warriors will obviously keep those numbers nearby.
The Warriors need to keep the turnovers in check and create opportunities for Curry. They will want the ball in his hands as much as possible, but especially since he finished the regular season with a hot hand. The trick is to carry it into the playoffs against a team that defends.
Composure will play a role because emotions could quickly go into the red, given the tension of the four regular-season meetings. Bogut gladly took on the role of instigator, so his absence, even if for a short time, could also turn into a factor in that unique way. Both arenas will be filled and the crowd in Oakland will make anyone pay for forgetting ear plugs. It will be interesting to see if the referees, aware of the history between the teams, call the games especially close to keep control.
This is going to be good, even if the Warriors will go from underdogs to serious longshots if Bogut is out or severely limited this series. There are enough emotions on both sides and enough firepower from Golden State to keep it interesting. Just not enough to win. Clippers in 6.
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