Officially, the L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors are tied 1-1 as their first round playoff series moves north to the Bay Area for games 3 and 4 Thursday night and Sunday afternoon. Realistically, however, the series is over.
After a shocking 4-point loss Saturday afternoon, the Clips established their dominance with a 40-point blowout Monday night and concurrently crushed the Warriors' hopes of pulling off an upset. Sure, the Warriors could still win another game or two in the best-of-seven series because three of the next four games will be played at the Oracle Arena in front of the most vociferous fans in the entire NBA. But even if it comes down to a game seven at a rocking Staples Center, you can count on another Clippers beat-down similar to the one the Clippers laid on the Warriors Monday night.
It was so overwhelming that if there was a mercy rule in the NBA it would have been invoked Monday night at halftime, when the Clips led 67-41. The final score was 138-98, and in the process the Clippers set three franchise records: largest playoff victory margin, most points scored in a playoff game, and most 3-pointers - twelve - in a playoff game.
Besides setting three franchise records, the game also exposed five reasons why the Clippers will prevail and move on to the second round against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Memphis Grizzlies, who also were tied 1-1 after Memphis' overtime win Monday.
1. The refs are the only ones in this series who can stop Blake Griffin.
Griffin scored 35 points Monday night, and that was without even playing the fourth quarter, when Coach Doc Rivers pulled his starters and let the second unit get a taste of the blood in the water and finish the slaughter. If he had played the whole game he could have scored 50. He hit 13 of 17 shots and in the process displayed all the facets of his newly expanded game: 10-foot step-back turn-arounds and wide-open 20-foot jumpers in addition to his usual assortment of bull-dozer backdowns and flying dunks. Warriors forward David Lee, normally a defensive sieve anyway, started out covering Griffin and was absolutely helpless.
Warriors Coach Mark Jackson then put Draymond Green, a much tougher, much grittier player on him, but he lacked the size, quickness and athleticism to put the fire out. By the end of the third quarter the ugly truth was plain to see: the Warriors have no one who can guard Griffin straight-up, man-to-man. That means they will have to start double-teaming him in game 3, and once they do that Griffin has the passing skills and high basketball IQ to find the open man and make the Warriors pay all night long. The only reason he was held to 16 points in game 1 was because the refs made some bad calls that got him into early foul trouble and limited him to 19 minutes. That is unlikely to happen again as he has clearly made the adjustment to playoff officiating: he had zero fouls Monday night.
2. The Clippers' Barnes is better than the Warriors' Barnes.
Matt Barnes is a 6-foot-7 forward with a huge chip on his shoulder and a vicious competitive edge, always looking for contact and taking the ball straight at his opponent. The Warriors' Harrison Barnes is a 6-foot-7 forward who plays a nice finesse game, always looking to out-smart his opponent and find a way around him rather than through him. In a series where the stars - Griffin and Chris Paul for the Clippers, Lee and Stephen Curry for the Warriors - are expected to shine every game, the difference comes down to the supporting casts, to players like Matt Barnes and Harrison Barnes - and that is a huge advantage for the Clips.
Their second unit was clearly superior to the Warriors'' second unit Monday night, as players like Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Big Baby Davis and even Hedo Turkoglu grew the lead the starters had built from 11 points to 21 in the second period, helped by consecutive 3-pointers from Crawford, Turkoglu and Danny Granger.
Both coaches acknowledged the critical role of the Clippers superior bench. "Their second unit really hurt us in the first half," said Jackson. "Our bench was fantastic tonight," said Rivers. And that edge will only become more lop-sided as the series moves along and the players know their roles and what to expect from their counter-parts.
Turn the page for three more reasons the Clippers will take the series.
3. The Clippers are playing just as hard to protect their beloved coach as the Warriors are to protect theirs.
Going into the series, the mainstream media was pushing the storyline that Warriors Coach Jackson was in danger of losing his job if his team didn't make a deep run into the playoffs. Warriors' owner Joe Lacob is reportedly not a Jackson fan, has refused to give him a contract extension, and is already looking for a replacement.
True or not, Warrior players had rallied around Jackson and were using the job-loss angle to manufacture a win-one-for-the-coach emotional approach that helped drive them to a win in Game 1. But in the second quarter of Game 2, Warriors Center Jermaine O'Neal, an 18-year veteran who should know better, started jawing at Doc Rivers, who coached him several years ago when both were with the Boston Celtics. Rivers went right back at him, and it got so heated that both of them were given technical fouls. It was something you rarely see in the NBA, where players normally don't get into it with opposing coaches.
From that moment on, O'Neal was a marked man every time he got the ball because he had done the unthinkable: It was the basketball equivalent of talking smack about someone's mama. Now suddenly the Clippers had one more reason to keep their foot on the gas petal no matter how large their lead became. Equally important, it negated one of the few emotional advantages the Warriors had. Look for the O'Neal vs. Rivers feud to continue to motivate Clippers players as the series moves on.
4. Chris Paul wants to stop the Stephen Curry bandwagon in its tracks.
Paul is widely acknowledged as the best point guard in the NBA, just as much for his defense and passing and playmaking skills as he is for his clutch shooting. Curry is widely acknowledged as the best shooter in the NBA (along with Kevin Durant) and, as a result, has been generating a lot of buzz as a possible successor to Paul as the best point guard in the league.
Over the first two games Paul has taken a lot more three-pointers than he normally does, and it's hard not to believe it's because he is motivated to show he can shoot just as well as Curry. And watch him when he's defending Curry: he's even more physical and aggressive than usual. This game-within-the-game can only play to the Clips' advantage: Griffin may now be their best player, but Paul is still their most competitive player and emotional leader. Look for him to physically dominate Curry as the series goes on.
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5. The Clippers should be up 2-0 right now, because they are a better team.
The key play in Game 1 came in the final minute with the Clips down two points and Chris Paul driving to the basket. Draymond Green hacked him and the ball went out of bounds. But instead of calling a foul on Green and sending Paul - a deadeye foul shooter - to the line for two foul shots, the refs ignored the foul and gave the ball to the Warriors, who went on to win 109-105. A day after the game, NBA President of Basketball Operations Rod Thorn issued a statement saying the foul by Green should have been called prior to the turnover by Paul. If the right call had been made Paul almost certainly would have tied the game, and the Clips likely would have won and would now be up 2-0.
But the refs, by the league's own belated admission, made the wrong call and handed the close, hard-fought game to the Warriors. Monday night the Clippers made sure that no matter how incompetent the refs might be, it wouldn't matter - and they look determined to repeat that dominating approach in the rest of the games, starting Thursday night.
Author Walter Kirn has a current best-seller about his long, strange friendship with the con man/murderer who called himself Clark Rockefeller. Its title is Blood Will Out, and most readers assume that is a reference to the 1985 Pasadena murder that he was convicted of committing. As Kirn explained to the Weekly, however, it's actually an old English proverb, essentially meaning that a person's background or education will eventually show. In this case, the Warriors are a good, well-coached team - but the Clippers are a great, well-coached team. That makes Monday night's massacre an athletic version of Blood Will Out.
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