Friday, April 18, 2014

West Round 1 Preview: (3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

DeAndre Jordan improved by leaps and bounds in 2014.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By the Numbers

Los Angeles:
57-25 (34-7 Home; 23-18 Road)
PPG: 107.9 (1st); 101.0 (14th)
+7.0 Average Scoring Margin (2nd)
Off Rating: 109.4 (1st); Def Rating: 102.1 (7th)
+7.3 Net Efficiency Rating (2nd)

Golden State:
51-31 (27-14 Home; 24-17 Road)
PPG: 104.3 (10th); PPG Allowed: 99.5 (10th)
+4.8 Average Scoring Margin (T-4th)
Off Rating: 105.3 (12th); Def Rating: 99.9 (3rd)
+5.4 Net Efficiency Rating (6th)

Season Series: Tied 2-2
Los Angeles 126, Golden State 115 (October 31)
Golden State 105, Los Angeles 103 (December 25)
Golden State 111, Los Angeles 92 (January 30)
Los Angeles 111, Golden State 98 (March 12)

Players to Watch:

DeAndre Jordan

With Andrew Bogut expected to miss the series, what was once a difficult matchup for the Clippers becomes a real advantage. When Golden State goes small, with four perimeter players (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, and either Barnes or Draymond Green) and David Lee at center, Jordan should be able to take advantage of Lee's poor defense in space and lazy rotations. With Chris Paul orchestrating the offense, Jordan should be able to find easy baskets when the ball moves faster than Lee's brain and feet do. When Golden State plays a more traditional lineup, with Lee at power forward and Jermaine O'Neal at center, Jordan has the young spry legs to beat O'Neal down the court. Simply running to the front of the rim in transition could net a few baskets per game for Jordan.

The whole "Defensive Player of The Year" thing never materialized for him, and Doc Rivers comparing him to Bill Russell was rather laughable, but Jordan had the best season of his career on both ends of the floor. He was one of the better rim-protectors in the league, holding opponents to just 49.4 percent when he was in the area. If Jordan can close off the paint, the Clippers top-ranked three-point defense could hold off the barrage of threes that the Warriors are accustomed to.

Andre Iguodala

Stephen Curry is not a good defensive player. He's not even an average defensive player. Luckily, Golden State has Andre Iguodala, probably the best perimeter defender in the league this season. Curry moves around in attempt to hide himself against the opponent's worst perimeter player, while Iguodala takes over defensive duties against the most dangerous. In this series, that's Chris Paul.

Paul has a history of struggling against bigger, longer defenders. Way back in 2008, as he was torching the Spurs to the tune of 26 and 10 on 56 percent shooting through the first four games of their Round 2 series, the Spurs elected to switch long, gangly Bruce Bowen onto him for the last three games. He still averaged 20 and 12 but his field goal percentage dropped to just 42 percent and the Spurs won the series. The following year, after putting together the best point guard season in history among players not named "Earvin," Paul was "held" by Denver to "just" 16 and 10 on 42 percent shooting, guarded mostly by the bigger Dahntay Jones.

If Paul is guarded by Curry and left to his own devices, the Clippers will win this series in three games. They won't even play Game 4 because the first three would have been so brutal. But if Iguodala is chasing him around, Golden State will have a puncher's chance.

The Case for Los Angeles

Golden State has a surprisingly poor offense for the level of talent they have. A lot of it has to do with being committed to playing two traditional bigs, as opposed to a four-out system they used in the playoffs last year that absolutely blitzed the Nuggets and came damn close to knocking off San Antonio as well. It also has a lot to do with a rather pathetic free-throw rate - they shoot just .186 free throws for every field goal attempt, 3rd-worst in the league (in comparison, the Clippers ranked second with .258 free throws for every attempt from the floor). But their poor free throw rate can't be blamed on their propensity to shoot threes - the Rockets shot more threes than anyone in the league and also still managed to lead the league in free throw rate by a substantial margin.

That being the case, the Clippers have a lot of advantages - Golden State's offense is highly dependent on making threes, but the Clippers have the best three-point defense in the league. Opponents shot just 33.2 percent from deep against Los Angeles this season. Furthermore, one of the few weaknesses of their defense - a tendency to foul more than usual - might not even matter if Golden State doesn't have players that can draw fouls and get to the line.

Best-Case Scenario: The Clippers, at full strength for seemingly the first time this season, make short work of the Warriors as Bogut's injury robs them of their best interior defender, giving them no hope against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan assaulting the rim from above. Golden State's normal starting lineup is incredible. Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, and Bogut played 817 minutes together. They outscored opponents by 15.4 points per 100 possessions, making it the best lineup in the league that was together for at least 300 minutes. When you replace Bogut with Jermaine O'Neal, all you're left with is a bunch of noisy, small-sample lineups. Some are promising, but some are dreadful. Thrown into havoc, Golden State can't keep up with the Clippers well-oiled machine, and the Clippers sweep.

The Case for Golden State

Much like Portland, there's a chance that the Dubs could just combust like a thermonuclear reactor and lay waste to the entire league while shooting north of 45 percent from three for the next two months.

If they learned anything from last year's playoffs, it's that with a key big man out of the lineup, they should adjust their focus instead of trying to replace him. My guess is that they were more willing to go with a four-out system last year because (a) their opponent in Round 1 (Denver) didn't have a traditional interior threat, and (b) they didn't have a similar player to provide a semi-reason facsimile. This year, the Clippers have a traditional interior threat, and the Warriors have Jermaine O'Neal. Meanwhile, Harrison Barnes, a key member of those four-out lineups, has been dreadful this year. However, he's really only been dreadful because he hasn't played much at power forward - the small, four-out lineups featuring Barnes have actually been spectacular, including the one that could be seen a great deal in this series. Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Lee played 80 minutes together and posted a net rating of +18.8 in those minutes. It's a small sample, but one that should warrant a long look.

Best-Case Scenario: Game 1 goes horribly wrong - Jermaine O'Neal proves too slow and ineffectual to warrant minutes, so Golden State adjusts and plays four-out with David Lee at center. The Warriors offense explodes and burns so hot that wildfires burst out across California. The Warriors sweep the next four games and win the series in five.

The Pick:

Clippers in 5

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