There shouldn't be this much wariness around a franchise; not one heading into their second consecutive playoff appearance after winning 51 games in a season marred by controversy. Nevertheless, Mark Jackson has made the round number 50 - ostensibly their hyped preseason goal - the arbitrary point as which to measure their success, to celebrate it without any doubt. He's made a point to mention this over and over again, before and after games. But with that slate wiped clean, it's just the Golden State Warriors led by the indomitable Stephen Curry and the rival Los Angeles Clippers standing right in front of them.
Both teams have wanted this all season. From Kent Bazemore's bench celebration last season, to the churchtroversy, Klay Thompson recently saying how Blake Griffin is soft, and perpetual ickiness on the court, the list literally goes on and on. BUT IS IT A RIVALRY? #hotsportsdebate has been the cute little theme running between the two teams because it apparently isn't interesting to talk about anything else.
But it's just that, it is highly refreshing for the Warriors to not only play in a rivalry game but a series against a team they so explicitly despise. There's not much to dislike, per sé, about these Clippers. Sure, they flop a lot but a lot of teams do too. And yes, their owner is a raging racist/scum of the earth but this is always more about the players themselves than the owners. This isn't the Bad Boys v. Boston Celtics or even Miami/Indiana of the present but the genuine and honest hatred between the two teams adds an aspect unseen around today's NBA.
There's not much analysis left we don't know. The Warriors are without their best big man, Andrew Bogut, and this puts a cramp into their best laid plans. They'll have to play small, perhaps running David Lee at the center position at times, forcing the Clippers to adjust if the Warriors can force turnovers and misses and run fast enough. Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were surely a mismatch with or without Bogut but now it's up to Jackson to improvise on the fly. He has shown an ability to do so, bucking conventional wisdom by starting Harrison Barnes in last year's postseason. Unfortunately, this is also the last time he's adjusted to an offensive scheme considered analytically progressive.
Draymond Green will man the forward position, opening up the offense on the other side, allowing the Warriors space shooters and post another excellent passer. This is ideal on offense but there's not much the Warriors or Jackson can do when Chris Paul can control the tempo so well, allowing his bigs to dominate the offensive glass and highlight reel everywhere else.
And we haven't even gotten to the coach yet. This might be his last several games with the team. A coach that's praised for his ability to get the most out of his players, this series is the perfect clash of sensitive moments. Management likely doesn't consider the Bogut excuse a viable one, not with the way the team has played, with the way the rotations have been run, and the things said between the lines. But Jackson effusively loves his guys, and it's fair enough to assume that the players are going to play that much harder, even if that sounds dumb considering the circumstances.
The known commodities range from Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick, DeAndre Jordan, and David Lee. Players like Jamal Crawford, Draymond Green, and the combined effectiveness of each other's bench present a tipping point in what appears to be close matchups at every position. X-factors and veteran leadership are fun ways to vaguely determine the role of each player. Blake Griffin is a superstar! Chris Paul is the leader and general! And for the Warriors, it will always come down to their best player.
Barnes and Bogut were simultaneously, and surprisingly, excellent playing smallball against the Denver Nuggets. Then they both exceeded raised expectations against the nightmare squad known as the San Antonio Spurs. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green provided enough on each side of the ball to warrant solid play. But above and between them all, Curry functioned as the engine that was revved all the way up until an ankle sprain broke it all back down.
To do it again, Curry needs the decibel-breaking third quarters, transition pull-up treys, insane whip passes with the left hand through a double-team from the corner, and newfound floppy tendency in the lane. And then the Warriors need more. The Clippers have Paul manning the offense, not Ty Lawson. And Griffin and Jordan on the boards, not Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried. Hell, Redick, Barnes and Dudley present sizable upgrades over Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller. Regardless of supporting casts, Curry is relied upon, perhaps unfairly, to mask over every single flaw that's plagued the Warriors this season. Jackson has papered over the bench woes, shaky rotations, and lack of energy with a relentless amount of Curry awesomeness.
And in the rivalry that each team has begged for since the middle of last season, it's up to the player that's carried the team this far, provided so many spectacular photo finishes, to simply do it again.
Prediction: Clippers in 6