Can Clippers catch Warriors by surprise?

OAKLAND, CA – FEBRUARY 22: Tyrone Wallace #12 of the LA Clippers goes to the basket against the Golden State Warriors on February 22, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

No disrespect to the LA Clippers, but there’s a big-picture issue at play here in their first-round series. It’s about the Golden State Warriors, and whether this is the beginning of the end of an era.

Sure, that’s putting the future ahead of the present, but that’s far more important and discussion-ready than the Clippers stealing a game. And it could fuel the Warriors to make it three straight championships before Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson reach free agency this summer. There’s a sense among the Warriors that they need to finish this properly, just in case there’s a defection (or two) come July.

Few, if any, thought the Clippers would be the last team standing in L.A., much less one with 48 wins. The Clippers defied the odds and made the playoffs after trading their best player and leading scorer, Tobias Harris, at the deadline. The killer sixth-man duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell generate the most worry, where Williams is solid from the perimeter and the poor-shooting Harrell somehow averaged 16.5 points per game.

Yet in the coach Steve Kerr era, the Warriors have barely broken a sweat in the first round, winning 16-of-18 games there. They won the season series with the Clippers 3-1, winning the last meeting by 27 points.

If you’re a believer in karma, the last time the Warriors failed to make The Finals came courtesy of the Clippers in 2014. The Warriors have come a long way since then.

Regular-season series

Nov. 12, 2018 – Warriors 116 @ Clippers 121 (OT)
Dec. 23, 2018 – Clippers 127 @ Warriors 129
Jan. 18, 2019 – Warriors 112 @ Clippers 94
Apr. 7, 2019 – Clippers 104 @ Warriors 131

Three things to watch

1. What can we expect from DeMarcus Cousins now?

None of the Warriors should be motivated more than Cousins, who missed the playoffs last season in New Orleans after Achilles surgery and also missed out on cashing in during free agency. Well, “Boogie” signed up only for one season in Golden State for the sole reason of winning a title and impressing potential suitors this summer, so he has money and a ring on his mind. Cousins has looked sharp lately and there’s no experienced L.A.center to stop him.

2. How much will Pat Beverley get under Curry’s skin and will it matter?

The last time these two polar opposites met, there was a brief skirmish. Beverley as usual played defense a little too tight for comfort and Curry shot a forearm, which of course Beverley was only too happy to return the favor. Beverley is all about irritating and knocking his man off rhythm, and often he succeeds. Curry doesn’t rattle easily, though and it might be Beverley who gets frustrated.

3. Who needs to be the hero-ball guy for the star-less Clippers?

The Clippers are among the league’s least-threatening three-point shooting teams and their designated bail-out artists are their best shooters from distance: Williams and Danilo Gallinari. The latter had a solid season — 19.8 ppg with 43.3 percent shooting on three-pointers — and is one of the more underrated players in the game. But does he scare anyone, especially a good defensive team like the Warriors? Probably not enough for the Clippers’s sake.

The number to know

95.1 — The Warriors’ starting lineup — Curry, Cousins, Thompson, Durant, and Draymond Green — allowed just 95.1 points per 100 possessions after the All-Star break, making it the best defensive lineup among those that played at least 100 post-break minutes.

Though the Warriors went 9-0 with their five-star lineup before the break, the lineup allowed 114.3 points per 100 possessions in its 112 pre-break minutes. Things changed after the break, even though it played more post-break minutes against top-10 offenses than it did against bottom-10 offenses. The champs led the league in offensive efficiency (and ranked in the top three for the fifth straight season).

Defense has been an issue in the last two regular seasons and Cousins’ ability to defend in space could be a question mark. But the Warriors’ ability to lock down defensively with their five most talented players on the floor over the last seven weeks is not a good sign for those hoping that their title run will come to an end prematurely.

The pick

The Clippers will be prepared for this series because that’s how Doc Rivers-coached teams roll. He should be a strong favorite for Coach of the Year for the way he steered his club and made the necessary changes after the trade deadline to keep the Clippers moving forward. Which means, the Clippers should make for a few suspenseful finishes and that’s a victory in and of itself. Warriors in 4.

 

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