The Golden State Warriors are on top of the Western Conference. All signs seem to point to the team will facing a foe near the bottom of the playoff standings in the first round. However, with the 5th, 6th, and 7th seed in a virtual tie as of Monday, March 16th, we really can't pin down exactly who the Dubs will play.
In Part 1 of the series, we took a look at how the Warriors have performed against the Pelicans and Suns. Part 2 illustrated the team's games against the Spurs and Thunder. Our third installment will highlight how the Dubs have played against the next two teams on the playoff ladder, the Mavericks and Clippers.
You may think that the fifth or sixth seeds aren't relevant in the NBA playoffs. Other than the occasional upset, or giving the third and fourth seeds a tough series (wearing them down for the higher seeds to feast on in the second round), you might consider them to be an afterthought. While those are the likeliest roles of the "middle" seeds, Hakeem Olajuwan and the Houston Rockets won a championship as the sixth seed in 1995, despite never having homecourt advantage in a single playoff series.
They started by dismantling the #3 seeded Utah Jazz, led by All NBA first teamers John Stockton and Karl Malone. Then they traveled to Phoenix, where they embarrassed Charles Barkley and the #2 seeded Phoenix Suns. After that, they headed to MVP David Robinson and rebound champion Dennis Rodman's house and beat the #1 seeded San Antonio Spurs. Finally, they went to Orlando and swept NBA leading scorer Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic. In the process, they mowed through seven All-NBA players, including four of the five first teamers. That team started Pete Chilcutt in 15 of their 22 playoff games, so don't think for one second that a team can't overcome a serious deficiency.
The Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, have played .500 or better basketball for the past 14 seasons, including 13 postseason appearances, two trips to the Finals, and their first NBA title. The Clippers have been in the past three playoffs, putting up a .606 winning percentage or better every year since they acquired point guard supreme Chris Paul. They've advanced past the first round twice in the last three seasons, and should be considered a strong threat to do so again this year.
Let's take a closer look at these two teams and examine the results of their contests this season against the Warriors.
In May of 2007, the eighth-seeded Warriors defeated a 67-win Mavericks team in what may have been the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. The fans in Dallas remember it about as well as Warriors fans do, and would savor the opportunity for revenge. And while Hal Brown over at Mavs Moneyball statistically predicts that the Mavs have just a 5% chance to beat the Warriors in the playoffs this year, I think it's foolish to ignore a team loaded with champions on both the roster and the coaching staff.
2007 doesn't carry much weight now. There are only three Warriors players from We Believe that are still in the league: Matt Barnes, Monta Ellis, and the nearly retired Jason Richardson... none of whom are still with the team. Dallas only has two players left from that season, backup guard Jose Barea, and the greatest Mav of all time, Dirk Nowitzki.
On December 13th, the Warriors headed to Dallas riding a 14-game winning streak. The Warriors were well rested but shorthanded, playing without injured big men Andrew Bogut and David Lee. The host Mavericks struggled right from the tip, and the Dubs took a 39-18 first quarter lead. Despite outrebounding the Warriors 53-45, the home team eventually succumbed to the Small Ball Death Squad, and the Warriors won 105-98.
(My favorite play is that last block.)
Other than rebounding, the Dubs outplayed the Mavs in the other major categories. The Warriors outshot the Mavs (despite having a subpar shooting performance) .506 to .433 (eFG%), with Dallas' shooting percentages dragged down by Ellis' 8-22 night, along with their point guard triumvirate of Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, and Barea combining to shoot 6-21. The Warriors turned the ball over 13 times while the Mavs committed 15 turnovers, and both teams hit 21 free throws.
On February 4th, the Mavs rolled into Oracle Arena looking to extend a three game winning streak. The Warriors were on the second night of a back-to-back, coming off a win in Sacramento, and the visiting Mavs jumped out to a 42-25 lead in the first quarter. The Mavs edged the Warriors in turnovers 13-8, but the Dubs controlled the glass 46-42. The real story of the game was that Steph heated up and scored a season high 51 points, while the team's defense buckled down and held the Mavs to just .469 shooting (eFG%), well below the Warriors .634 mark for the night.
The final result was a 128-114 victory for the hometown Warriors.
The last time these two teams faced off was March 6th, again in Oakland, and the game seemed familiar. The Warriors shot .537 and held the Mavs to just .402 (eFG%), and blocked 11 shots defending their home court. The Mavs forced 22 Warriors turnovers and only surrendered 11, and the whistles once again blew against the Warriors, who shot only 19 attempts to the Mavs 26. It didn't matter, as the Warriors controlled the glass, outrebounding the Mavs 51-34. When you get more possessions and finish them more efficiently, you win.
The Warriors won 104-89, and lead the season series 3-0.
Rick Carlisle's starters are Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler. The major bench minutes go to Al Farouq Aminu, Devin Harris, Richard Jefferson, Jose Barea, and the newly acquired Amar'e Stoudemire, with Raymond Felton, Charlie Villanueva, Greg Smith, and Bernard James mostly as situational subs or garbage time players.
They rank 5th in ORtg and 14th in DRtg. They're 4th in eFG%, 7th in assist, and 6th in both total steals and turnovers. They are also tied for 4th in point differential. However, they are being outrebounded by a staggering 4 rebounds a game, ranking 30th in DRB% and 24th in ORB%, and they don't get to the line much, ranking 24th in free throw rate. Their offense is dominated by Ellis' 17.1 shot attempts per game and 28.2 USG%, despite his sub-par .513 TS%.
For the Warriors to beat the Mavericks, they'll want to control the glass, limit their turnovers, and make Monta beat them. Ellis is shooting a batting average-like .370 TS% against the Warriors. Rick Carlisle is a good coach, with a championship and a postseason .509 winning percentage to prove it, and he'll have his squad prepared for a series with the Warriors if the Mavericks face them in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers
If there's bad blood between any two teams in the league right now, it's the Warriors and Clippers. After occupying the cellar of the Western Conference for so long, these two beleaguered franchises have risen from the ashes of bad ownership like two phoenixes, reborn as the best teams in the Pacific Division for the past three seasons in a row. However, there's no kinship shared between these two former laughingstocks.
"We don't like each other." Andrew Bogut said when asked about the Clippers.
In the playoffs last spring, the shorthanded Warriors took the favored Clippers to the edge of elimination, leading game 7 with about four minutes to play before the Clippers bounced back and sent our gold and blue heroes packing. And while GSoM voters chose Draymond as their Warriors Wonder in 5 of the 7 games, Clippers fans find him "insufferable".
Some things have changed. Mark Jackson lost his job. David Lee and Andre Iguodala gave up their starting positions. Donald Sterling lost his franchise. And this time, the Warriors have home court advantage, which should be huge for the Warriors. Besides boasting a home margin of victory that's over 15 points, so far this season, the home team has emerged victorious in all three games between the two rival franchises.
On November 5th, the Clippers marched into Oracle Arena for their first match against an undefeated Warriors squad. The Warriors continued to experience their early season turnover woes, coughing up the rock 23 times while forcing the Clips to commit just 14 turnovers. The Clippers also enjoyed 27 attempts from the foul line, despite Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combining for only three free throws, but only managed to hit 21 of their attempts, while the home team knocked down all 20 of their attempts. However, the Dubs dominated the glass 39-30, making the possession battle even, and they shot almost as well from the field as they did from the stripe, with a ridiculous .682 eFG%. The Warriors defense, meanwhile, held the Clippers to a mediocre eFG% of just .506.
It's tough to beat a team that shoots a .731 TS%, especially in front of 19,596 screaming fans in a sea of gold, and the Clippers predictably lost the game in a blowout, 121-104.
The Clippers would have their revenge. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Doc Rivers' squad spoiled the holiday for the Warriors faithful behind the strength of 31 free throw attempts and a 50-44 rebounding advantage. The Warriors defense, playing without injured center Andrew Bogut, still managed to hold the Clippers to just 100 points on (eFG%) .443 shooting, but their offense missed his strong screens and they shot an eFG% of just .463, not enough to overcome deficits in rebounding, turnovers (16-13), and free throws (31-22).
The Clippers won the game 100-86, and handed the Warriors their fifth loss of the season.
"I mean, it's no secret we don't like them, and it's no secret they don't like us." Draymond Green said after the loss.
In their most recent contest, the final tally looked closer than the game actually was, with the Warriors leading by 19 after three quarters. Another sellout crowd at Oracle Arena witnessed a Warriors team at full strength demolishing the Blake Griffin-less Clippers 106-98, holding off a garbage time comeback that saw the Clips outscore the Dubs 30-19 in the fourth.
The Warriors outshot the Clippers .563 to .530 (eFG%), won the turnover battle 18-13, and even made it to the line more, shooting 23 free throws while the Clippers managed to attempt only 14. The Clippers grabbed two more rebounds than the Warriors, 39-37, but the Clippers couldn't compete without their customary edge from the line (they average 25 free throw attempts per game) and missing star.
Of course, the teams didn't care that the final whistle blew.
Despite the Warriors holding a significant edge in the standings, any series against the Clippers should not be taken lightly. Doc Rivers has coached a championship team, and has a .522 playoff winning percentage in 134 playoff games. They can beat anyone in a seven game series, and a healthy Clippers squad is a threat to any team in the league. A starting five featuring Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan is balanced and experienced. The bench showcases former Warriors guard and Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, stretch big Spencer Hawes, former champion Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Austin Rivers, Hedo Turkoglu, and Nate Robinson all logging regular minutes. Ekpe Udoh, Dahntay Jones, Jordan Hamilton, and rookie C.J. Wilcox round out their roster.
On the season, the Clippers rank first in ORtg, second in points, second in eFG%, 10th in pace, and 17th in DRtg. They are being outrebounded by 0.8 per game, but are third in assists and second in turnovers per game. They are third in free throw attempts per game (but 28th in opponent attempts), and ninth in the league in blocked shots.
For the Warriors to beat them in the playoffs, they'll need to get to the foul line, compete on the glass, and keep their turnovers under control while displaying their usual shooting prowess. With so much disdain for each other, a series between these two teams could be decided by the refs, or by whichever team manages to keep their cool. The Clippers' defense has holes, especially on the perimeter, where the Warriors shoot better than 40% from three point land against them. The Warriors will need to dominate the wings to offset the scoring and rebounding of the Clippers big men.
No matter who Warriors face this spring, they'll need to be at their best if they want to advance. The Western Conference is brutal, and only a team worthy of a championship will make it to the Finals.