The Golden State Warriors open their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday afternoon at the Staples Center. Here are some keys to look for in the first ever postseason matchup between the two longtime also-rans.
Injuries: The Warriors were dealt a big blow in the final week of the regular season when starting center Andrew Bogut fractured his rib and would be sidelined indefinitely. The big Australian was instrumental in turning the Warriors into an elite defensive team (third in defensive rating). Veteran Jermaine O’Neal is expected to start at center. While O’Neal brings more offensively, he will not come close to the defensive presence that Bogut has. The defense suffers even more when coach Mark Jackson puts David Lee in at the five. The Warriors also have injury concerns with Lee (nerve inflammation) and Andre Iguodala (knee).
While the Warriors are battling injuries, the Clippers are getting healthy at the right time. J.J. Redick returned in early April after missing 25 games with a bulging disc in his lower back. Chris Paul returned in February after missing 18 games with an AC joint separation. Jamal Crawford, Sixth Man of the Year candidate, played the final three games after missing 13 of the previous 18 games with a strained left calf. The only concern is Danny Granger, who missed the final nine games with a strained left hamstring, but is expected to be ready for Game 1.
Downtown: While Golden State ranked fourth (.380) in 3-point shooting, Los Angeles was best (.332) in defending against it. The Warriors shot 36 of 89 (.404) in the regular season against the Clippers. If Stephen Curry didn't make an incredible 17 of 29 shots, the percentage would go down to .317. In other words, the Warriors cannot settle for the outside jumper. Keep attacking the rim and the Warriors might be able to get DeAndre Jordan, Defensive Player of the Year candidate, into foul trouble.
Keeping Jordan off the floor will be important on both ends of the floor. The 6’11” center led the league in field goal percentage (.676) and rebounds (13.6) and was third in blocks (2.5). Jordan was second in defensive rebounds (9.5) and tied for second in offensive rebounds (4.0). While Jordan is in the game, the Warriors will need to exploit his free throw shooting (.250 in April) at some point.
Point guard: The series features a battle between two of the best point guards in the NBA today, Curry and Chris Paul. The duo put up great numbers in the regular season. Curry averaged 24.0 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 3.8 turnovers in 78 games. Paul averaged 19.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.3 turnovers in 62 games.
Curry will need to stay aggressive, but cut down on his careless turnovers, for the Warriors to have a chance in this series. While Paul will guard Curry, he will be defended by Klay Thompson, an underrated defender. Iguodala and versatile Draymond Green will also have their shots.
Reserves: The Clippers, led by Crawford, Granger and Darren Collison, have the advantage here. The Warriors will need Green to knock down wide-open shots that he is going to get, Steve Blake to step up offensively, Jordan Crawford to stay in control and Harrison Barnes to regain his form from last season’s playoffs.
Coaching: Doc Rivers won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and has a 64-57 postseason record. Mark Jackson took the Warriors into the second round in his second season last year and has a 6-6 record. The Clippers certainly have the advantage here, especially with the Warriors reducing their assistant coaches rotation in the last month of the season.
Prediction: On paper, the Clippers have the clear advantage and should have no problem advancing. However, funnier and weirder things have happened in sports. When you take into account the emotional aspects of this series and an MVP candidate in Curry, the Warriors have a great opportunity to shock the world yet again as they did in 2007. Golden State Warriors, with nothing to lose and rallying behind their beleaguered coach, advance 4-2.