For the first time since Game 7 of the 2013-14 First Round, the Warriors will take on the Clippers in an actual game. You know, one that matters in the standings.
The Warriors-Clippers rivalry turned into must-see TV starting last season, highlighted by their Christmas spectacle and testy first-round series. Both teams jumped into dark-horse contendership last year, even though neither reached with Conference Finals, much less the finals. But make no mistake: The Warriors and the Clippers, led by star point guards Stephen Curry and Chris Paul, respectively, are each well-built to contend for a championship this year. Their rivalry will be one of the main storylines of this NBA season, with both hoping to claim the Pacific Division title and having realistic dreams of holding the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end of this season.
Tonight at Oracle Arena, the undefeated Warriors will play the 3-1 Clippers, with Golden State shooting out to its first 3-0 start in 20 years -- since the 1994-1995 season -- while the Clippers have started off well in looking to win their third consecutive Pacific Division title.
Led by the Splash Brothers, the Warriors have begun to realize their offensive potential this season after infamously finishing just twelfth in offensive efficiency under Mark Jackson last year. Through three games, Golden State sits in the top ten in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, with Steve Kerr's new offense harping on both precise ball and player movement.
Klay Thompson was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the NBA's opening week and leads the league in scoring at 29.7 points per game. Against the Lakers on Sunday, he exploded for a career-high 41 points on just 18 shot attempts. Stephen Curry has been brilliant as per usual, averaging 25 points per game in his own right and leading the league in steals.
It's not just that Curry and Thompson are producing, it's how they're doing it. Thompson has shot the ball at nearly 54%, per NBA.com/stats, and gotten to the foul line over seven times per game thus far. A massive evolution from earlier in his career, when he would merely stand by the three-point line and shoot threes all game long. Yes, he's always been a great shooter, but now that Thompson has learned to score the ball in other ways, he's becoming a dominant player -- worthy of a maximum extension. And Curry has shot a career-high (through three games!) 53% on two-pointers, and has gotten to the line over eight times per contest so far. A not-too-shabby evolution of his game in his own right, and you know that Curry's shooting from from three-point land (27 percent) will rise. That is when the Warriors will start to get really scary offensively.
The Warriors are also succeeding with their (now shockingly) customary defense. Through three games Warriors have the best defensive efficiency in the entire NBA at 87.5 points per 100 possessions; this after finishing third in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season. Stephen Curry is currently the NBA leader in steals at 3.7 pilfers per game, and Golden State has forced the most turnovers per game so far.
"He [Curry] has really been hawking people up there, and it's good to see that because that's how people try to [play] him," forward Draymond Green said following Sunday's victory at Portland. "They're not really expecting it ... they don't know him as a great defender, [but] he's gotten so much better."
One thing that we should take into account is that David Lee, who has not played so far this season due to a strained right hamstring, is projected by multiple sources to play his first game tonight. The Warriors have been dominated on the offensive glass so far, 32-19, and not having Lee has been an important reason why. Golden State has started slowly in every game thus far, notably falling behind by ten points to the Lakers in the first half, partially because there has been relatively no offensive production from the power forward position. Though Lee could be rusty and may not start tonight, nor display complete familiarity with Kerr's offense, his excellent passing and scoring should help the Warriors tonight regardless.
A key to the game will be how Klay Thompson guards Chris Paul. With Thompson likely taking the Chris Paul assignment for the majority of the game, it will be important for him to be able to hold Paul at least in check. The point guard went for a triple-double against Utah on Monday night, his first in a Clipper uniform. Paul absolutely thrashed Thompson and the Warriors in the first Warriors-Clippers matchup of last season -- putting up a monster stat line of 42 points, 15 assists and 6 steals. If Thompson can bother Paul with size, athleticism and length, that will go a long way in giving the Warriors a four-game winning streak to start the season.
Blake Griffin also has dominated Golden State in recent games, most notably in Games Three and Seven of last season's first-round series. Griffin has beasted the Warriors and David Lee throughout his career, and when Draymond Green has been on him even that has not stopped Griffin from getting to the rim. It will be paramount to keep Griffin out of the paint; even if the Warriors must let Griffin shoot his "improved" jump shot from 15-18 feet, that's better than an uncontested hammer dunk. So look tonight perhaps for Draymond or David Lee to play DeAndre Jordan for a spell while either Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezili guards Griffin; this could be a defensive switch that helps the Warriors greatly.
The first matchup between the Warriors and the Clippers should bring excitement, tension, and star power. You know the Oracle crowd will bring it in this rivalry. Both Golden State and Los Angeles are looking to make an early statement that each is the team to beat in the Pacific Division and in the Western Conference. Let's get ready for the first of four (and hopefully more) meetings between the top two teams of the division. It's going to be fun.