The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) for the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
It’s sad and more than a little enervating the Golden State Warriors’ chances at a championship are exactly where we pegged them a year ago. They’re the same as when we left them following their second-round loss to San Antonio, and last autumn when 2013-14 sparked up. The team is only going as far as the relative health of Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut will allow, and no amount of bench woes, coaching intrigue and dodgy shooting can drag the narrative and scouting report from where it belongs. It needs Curry to dominate offensively, and Bogut to do the same on the other end, and while this may come off as too simple, one would have a hard time arguing otherwise.
This is why the revelation of Andrew Bogut’s most recent significant injury is such an absolute downer, such a killer for a team that truly could have made some postseason noise had the matchups been in place, and the threes-and-defense philosophy fully executed. Bogut may not even be his team’s best defender, all-around demon Andre Iguodala probably takes that prize, but in spite of some intriguing defensive depth in the pivot and the possibility that the team’s brilliant shooting backcourt could still make wonderful work out of April, May and June, the Warriors’ hopes were just about dashed when it was announced that the big man would be out indefinitely with a rib injury.
The Los Angeles Clippers don’t have their own injury woes, not to that extent, but it is always worth biting a nail or two when discussing the durability of all-world point guard Chris Paul. CP3 isn’t exactly a ligament-tearing charity case, but he has missed solid chunks of some of his NBA turns. This season’s 20-game interruption was his longest since 2010, and with the flighty Darren Collison replacing Paul in the lineup and forward Blake Griffin still working past criticism about his supposed stasis as a contributor, there was significant worry when Paul went down with a separated right shoulder over the winter.
Famously, the Clippers went 12-6 in Chris’ absence, with Blake leading the way while boasting a fantabulous mix of point forward-isms and potent finishing from just about everywhere within that 3-point line. Los Angeles didn’t seem to miss a beat following Paul’s return, reeling off a 12-2 run that saw the league’s best point guard happily passing on dominating the ball, allowing Griffin and his cohorts to run the show at times while still somehow maintaining the same assist and usage percentages.
This is why the Doc Rivers-led crew is a championship contender. The former Celtics title-winning coach somehow found a way to eliminate the previous era’s glaring weaknesses – Griffin’s short-armed missteps, DeAndre Jordan’s clueless defensive work some 19 feet away from the goal, Paul’s ball domination – in the span of a year, and the returning Pacific Division champs have a genuine shot at something special this spring, and possibly summer.
Golden State shouldn’t boast that same confidence, not without Bogut in place for an extended period of time. New starter Jermaine O’Neal has been a revelation in his 18th season, but even the NBA’s best potential defensive backup pivotman doesn’t approximate what Bogut provides, and rookie Ognjen Kuzmic is just too raw to be counted on in nationally televised games. The team with the ill-gotten stereotype as an offense-only squad may have to act as much against Los Angeles, ignoring the Kent Bazemores and Iguodalas in favor of something desperate. Usually pitched from 25 feet away.
Toss in the clear enmity between the two squads, and you just have a huge disappointment. The Warriors may annoy at times, but the team’s roster is also filled with all manner of respectable characters, and there genuinely was second- and third- and perhaps fourth-round potential with this lot. Bogut’s absence doesn’t completely decimate Golden State, and the man could still return before his team’s season ends, but those chances have been hamstrung.
From there, it’s up to the Clippers. After years of prattling around with former administrations in charge, it’s time for this squad to follow through on what could be theirs. It has to start with a swift take down of a team it hates.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 5.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Do the Warriors stand a chance without Andrew Bogut?
Forgive me for being obvious, but after learning that the bruising Aussie is out indefinitely with a fractured rib — a break that Bogut told reporters has him "looking at a punctured lung," and that head coach Mark Jackson "all but confirmed" will keep Bogut out for the full postseason, according to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News — it seems like the most relevant question.
Bogut played arguably his best ball of the season against the rival Clippers, averaging just under 12 points, 11 rebounds and two combined blocks and steals in 27.5 minutes per game, shooting 67.7 percent from the field and setting a physical tone that helped keep high-flying Clippers stars Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan a bit more grounded. Willingness to push and shove aside, Bogut also stood as Golden State's best interior defender and rim protector this season; his absence figures to be a problem against a Clippers team that shot a scorching 67.7 percent in the restricted area this season, second-best in the NBA behind the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.
Bogut held opponents to 45 percent shooting on at-rim attempts when he was in the defensive neighborhood this season, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data, an elite number among paint-protecting regulars. Warriors opponents took a lower share of their shots inside the paint with Bogut guarding the yard (46.4 percent of total field-goal attempts) than with him resting (47.3 percent) and connected on a lower percentage of them (49.8 percent with Bogut, 52.8 percent without). While Jackson has several other strong defenders on his roster — perimeter ace Andre Iguodala, versatile forward Draymond Green, point-checking two-guard Klay Thompson, veteran backup center Jermaine O'Neal, etc. — he doesn't have another paint deterrent of Bogut's caliber, and if the numbers from the regular-season series against the Clippers are any indication, that's a major issue for Golden State:
• With Bogut on the floor, the Warriors outscored the Clippers by 17 points over 110 minutes in four meetings this season. Without him, L.A. was +20 in 82 minutes.
• With Bogut on the floor, the Clippers scored an average of 105.7 points per 100 possessions, which would've ranked 10th in the NBA over the course of the full season. While that mark would be the envy of plenty of NBA teams — 20, according to my advanced math — it represented a steep drop-off from the Clippers' top-of-the-pops offensive efficiency of 109.4-per-100. When Bogut sat, the Clips shot right back up to their customary rate of scoring brilliance, pouring it in at a 109.3-per-100 rate.
• With Bogut on the floor, the Clippers grabbed just 45.6 percent of available rebounds. When he sat, that number rose to 53.8 percent. To put that in perspective: when facing Bogut, the Clips rebounded like the dead-last-in-the-NBA Los Angeles Lakers, and when they didn't have to face him, they scarfed up caroms at a clip that would have been No. 1 with a bullet during the regular season, head and shoulders above the league-best Oklahoma City Thunder.
• With Bogut on the floor, the Warriors were much better at defending L.A. without hacking, committing 46 personal fouls in 110 minutes. With Bogut on the bench, the Clippers drew 53 personal foul calls in 82 minutes, leading to an obscenely high free-throw rate that kept the Clipper offense humming along.
It's worth remembering that we're only talking about a couple of hundred minutes over the span of four games, but if those trends hold up, the future looks grim for Golden State. A version of the Warriors that can't keep Griffin and Jordan off the glass, can't keep the Clippers off the foul line, and can't slow down an elite offense now firing on all cylinders thanks to the return of shooting guards J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford is a version of the Warriors that doesn't appear to be long for the postseason world.
The Warriors are not utterly bereft without Bogut, of course. The 17-year veteran O'Neal has played well when pressed into duty as a starter, averaging 10.5 points on 57.7 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and just over one block in 25 minutes per game, and he's certainly more than willing mix it up with Blake and company. But he's just one man, and there's not much behind him on the Dubs' depth chart. Sophomore Festus Ezeli isn't yet back to 5-on-5 action after missing the entire season following right knee surgery. Jackson likely won't turn to end-of-the-benchers Ognjen Kuzmić and Hilton Armstrong in the playoffs. And past MVP chants aside, I wouldn't want to hitch my wagon to Marreese Speights' defensive prowess against Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll.
The best solution might be one that Jackson has said he'll now give longer looks: smaller lineups featuring David Lee at the five with some combination of Green, Iguodala and Harrison Barnes up front alongside Thompson and Stephen Curry in the backcourt. Such units have largely roasted the opposition offensively this season, albeit in relatively limited burn (none have seen more than 105 minutes of floor time) and could pose problems for the Clippers defense by creating gobs of space for Curry-Lee pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, Curry's unique brand of dribbling improvisation and ball swings that lead to open 3-pointers, much as they did against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of last year's postseason.
But these Clippers are not last year's Nuggets, this Barnes is not last year's Barnes, and last year's injured Lee isn't this year's injured Bogut. It ought to be sensationally fun to watch Steph try to Human Torch his way past the Clips. Enjoy it while it lasts; unless Bogut winds up pulling a miraculous Lee-like recovery sooner rather than later, I don't think it'll last very long.
Prediction: Clippers in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
The basketball world has awaited this series for several months. Way back in the first week of the season, the Clippers snubbed the Warriors by declining to share pre-game chapel services, a rare snub in a league where most players stay friendly when not on the court. That moment ran alongside several hotly contested games, including a Christmas barnburner that featured several scuffles and ejections. A seven-game series promised all that drama, plus the purer pleasures of watching so many exciting, athletic players in one place. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, et al. — it was almost too much to handle.
Up until this past weekend, that excitement was still palpable. However, the broken rib recently suffered by Andrew Bogut, the Warriors’ chief antagonist, has thrown all that into flux. If Bogut is out for the entire series, which seems likely, the Warriors will be forced to go small. That could be very watchable, particularly given their arsenal of three-point shooters, but Doc Rivers already starts two hyper-athletic frontcourt players and has many perimeter options at his disposal. More than perhaps any other team in the league, the Clippers can adjust to smaller lineups without sacrificing much at all.
To be clear, this series figures to be very watchable, if only because these teams offer so much potential in the way of stylistic basketball. Yet, with Bogut out, it also figures to be somewhat one-sided. Tune in only if you’re more concerned with fun stuff than the final score.
Rating: 6 out of 10 Recitations of Philippians 4:13
Prediction: Clippers in 5.