By Norm Elrod
(CBS Los Angeles/CBS Local) — With the Los Angeles Clippers-Golden State Warriors series set to start Saturday, many are wondering if maybe the NBA included the wrong Los Angeles team in the playoffs. They did not. These scrappy Clippers, at 48-34, deserve to be here, while LeBron James and what’s left of the Lakers deserve to be watching at home. That’s long since been decided. Still, the Warriors, at 57-25, should take solace in knowing they won’t have to stave off another episode of LeBron Hero Ball. They will, however, have to deal with an underdog Clippers team that keeps exceeding expectations.
The Clippers lost three of their four meetings with the Warriors this season, including a 131-104 blowout last week. Their only win came early in the season, in an overtime game that featured a very different squad than what will take the floor Saturday. That game also saw Warriors drama between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. Green was later suspended for comments he made regarding Durant’s impending free agency.
The Warriors’ own demons may be an obstacle for them this postseason. But the Clippers also present the Warriors with an unlikely challenge in this series, personified by Patrick Beverley at the point guard position. The gritty Beverley is outmatched by counterpart Steph Curry, just as the Clippers face an uphill struggle against the Warriors. But he does have a knack of making things difficult. And this Golden State team has proved itself susceptible to instigation. Going into this playoff run, with an offseason of change to follow, the Warriors are already looking past the Clippers. But another NBA championship isn’t necessarily inevitable.
This season’s Clippers are an interesting story. The team unloaded a bunch of players at the trade deadline, including Tobias Harris, the closest thing thing they had to a star. Sitting at 30-25 in the competitive Western Conference, they were clearly looking more to the offseason than the playoffs. But soon Doc Rivers had his underdog squad winning, or winning more. Led by the best scoring bench in basketball, they put together multiple win streaks in March, finishing the month 13-2.
With his attitude and actions, Beverley is the team’s leader from the point guard position. He doesn’t score much, averaging 7.6 points per game. Nor does he rack up assists, dishing out 3.6 per game on one of the NBA’s better offenses. He can put up points and set up teammates, but that generally isn’t his role on this Clippers squad. Beverley is on the court to play tenacious defense and be physical (and probably talk a little smack too). He’s excelled on defense during the second half of the season, and will look to throw Curry off his game. And maybe, just maybe, he can facilitate some of the inconsistency that has undermined the Warriors at times this season.
Curry, for his part, is one of the NBA’s best and most unflappable scorers. As the leader of a team that sports five All-Stars in its starting five and multiple bench players who could be starting elsewhere, he averages 27.3 points per game, while shooting 43.7% from three. Curry is capable of scoring from pretty much anywhere and doing it in bunches. In his three games against the Clippers this season, he’s been the Warriors’ leading scorer, with 27, 28 and 42 points. He was injured for the November loss with the infamous Draymond-Durant dust-up.
Curry generally doesn’t get shaken by physical play and trash talk, but Beverley should try anyway. He has built a career, at least partly, on pushing things too far. And the Clippers should pull out all the stops in an opening-round series that no once thinks they can win The Clippers point guard will shadow the NBA’s best pure shooter, probably get little too physical and look to be distraction in any way he can. (Things have certainly turned snippy between these two before.) Beverley should even up his game on offense, to make Curry expend more energy defending him.
All of this is a long shot. The Clippers are, after all, up against a Warriors team looking to three-peat while it still has all it’s All-Stars. But it could work, at least in theory. And even a narrow path to victory is more than most people give the Clippers.