As we sit on the threshold of the NBA playoffs, we're often reminded of what a real NBA "rivalry" is all about and how they are often forged through a bond shared between two teams after a bitter battle of wills. Celtics-Lakers, Bulls-Pistons, Celtics-Heat, Heat-Pacers, Mavericks-Spurs, Lakers-Spurs, and Spurs-Suns have all been just a few of the rivalries we've bared witness to over the last generation. All have featured, at the very least, some semblance of playoff animosity and intrigue. For the last several years, ever since Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles, another rivalry started to come to light. Though often not in the forefront as much, and with much of the battle taking place below what seemed like calm waters, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors have become part of something that has the chance to endure over a considerable amount of years.
After two grueling playoff matchups with the Memphis Grizzlies over the last two seasons, which saw each team win a series of their own, the Los Angeles Clippers seemed to already have their chief competition. But the Warriors, through recent acquisitions and success, have emerged as a viable entity in the Clippers' own Pacific Division. Located roughly 370 miles from each other, the Clippers and Warriors share a bond both in-state and in-division. This goes beyond just Western Conference bragging rights. It boils down to the state, the division, and even the positions.
Chris Paul and Steph Curry, both elite point guards, couldn't be more different. One intelligently probes wayward defenses with a vigorous dribble, craftiness, and competitive fire of a being twice his size. The other whirlwinds through the opposition by displaying a magical elixir of perfect form, unconscious range, and sheer scoring prowess of an all-time virtuoso. But both are much more than that. Beyond their abilities, both men are leaders. While in different ways, both Paul and Curry lead by example and get the most out of those around them.
Blake Griffin and David Lee are power forwards who have molded their respective games into hard-to-guard displays of athleticism and savvy. Both are excellent passers, great rebounders, and fierce competitors. While David Lee's mid-range shooting has fallen off this season compared to past seasons, he's still a dynamic inside-outside threat that can make defenses pay with either hand around the basket or his ability to operate out of the high-post as a pick-and-pop big. Blake Griffin, to his credit, has matured his arsenal this season to combine his unearthly athleticism with a better understanding of the game. He's now crafted himself into an explosive force of nature that teams have yet to find answers for. Griffin has honed a mid-range game that compliments his face-up excellence and post-game aptitude extremely well while also throwing in the competence to be a willing high-post passer. In a lot of ways, they're almost alike.
When you peel back the layers on each team and delve a little deeper into the construct of their natural starting lineups, you find even more similarities abound. For instance, J.J. Redick and Klay Thompson are elite marksmen who move fluidly around the court in a manner that exhausts rival defenses. Their movement creates opportunities for their colleagues to find the necessary space suited for success. DeAndre Jordan and Andrew Bogut are both monsters in the middle that provide deterrence to even the most ardent of finishers. While Jordan is an athletic marvel, the likes of which this league has seldom seen, Bogut is a more traditional grounded rim protector. Both are overlooked at times but are highly instrumental to the success of their team. And, lastly, Matt Barnes and Andre Iguodala are not that different in terms of role. Both are there for their defensive ability and movement off the ball. While Iguodala is without a doubt a better playmaker and overall defender, Barnes has seen himself have a nearly identical offensive season. They're equally versatile wing threats who teams can't afford to overlook.
The general similarities with these teams don't end there, either. Both head coaches, Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson, have had their own say. Earlier this season, Mark Jackson took exception to Blake Griffin bumping into him twice along the sideline when Griffin was attempting to inbound the ball. "I wasn't going to let it happen a third time," Jackson said. Jackson also talked about how both franchises are not that different. Both had "struggled for a long time" and are now relevant. Doc Rivers mentioned that both were trying to become good teams but "neither team has done anything to have a rivalry, yet." The keyword in that quote is "yet." It's a powerful word.
As an aside, both of the head coaches in this little tiff were traded for each other back in September of 1992. The Clippers, in a three-team deal, sent Doc Rivers to the New York Knicks. In exchange, the Clippers received the Mark Jackson from the Knicks. There were other pieces involved in that deal, namely Bo Kimble, Charles Smith, and Stanley Roberts, as well as three draft picks, but Rivers and Jackson were the big ones. Both have a history in Los Angeles. Both have a competitive nature. And both are the mouthpiece for their respective sides.
This entire situation came to a head on Christmas Day this season. Two years prior to that game, however, the Clippers opened the season on Christmas Day in Golden State. It was 11 days after the Clippers had traded for Chris Paul. The Clippers went into Oracle Arena and knocked off the Warriors by 19 points. Fast-forward two years and we arrive back in Oakland for another dose of holiday cheer. Prior to the game, the Clippers declined the Warriors invitation to attend chapel services. It should come as no shock to people that these two teams play extremely physical against each other. And, sometimes, during that physicality some things tend to happen. Tempers, if you will, boil over. At the end of the third quarter, Draymond Green threw an elbow to Blake Griffin's throat. It was blatant, classless, and unwarranted. Green was hit with a Flagrant Two foul and ejected. Griffin was hit with a technical for confronting Green after the play. And, to this day, the aftereffects of that play still features one of the best "huh" reactions by a player. So, thanks for that Andre Iguodala.
I wish I could tell you that the theatrics and roughhousing stopped there. But it did not. A mere 80 seconds into the fourth quarter, Blake Griffin and Andrew Bogut got tangled up during a rebound opportunity and a bit of a scrap ensued. Andrew Bogut was levied a Flagrant One penalty, to which the NBA responded to the next day by saying he should have been given a technical foul. As for Blake Griffin, he received his second technical foul of the game and was ejected. The NBA, in that same report, stated that Griffin should have received a common foul and not been ejected. The rest of that game played out, without Blake Griffin, and the Warriors held on to win 105-103 after the Clippers missed five separate shots to tie or take the lead in the final 61 seconds.
These two teams are no stranger to awkward encounters, though. Besides the Christmas Day Dustup and Blake Griffin bumping into Mark Jackson, there's been a host of interesting occurrences. There was David Lee telling Blake Griffin to "stop flopping" as well Kent Bazemore and the Warriors bench going nuts when Blake Griffin hit the side of the backboard on a corner three, Festus Ezeli grabbing onto Blake Griffin's arm which resulted in Griffin falling hard, a scuffle at the end of their Christmas Day game this year, Blake Griffin having three straight fastbreak dunks which resulted in an iconic close-up of Mark Jackson, and Blake Griffin's putback dunk earlier this year that woke up the entire arena. I guess you can kinda guess the overarching theme here; Blake Griffin is involved in a lot of these. An awful lot, in fact.
Some people might scoff at the fact that Blake Griffin called what the Golden State Warriors did during their Christmas Day meeting as "cowardly basketball" since Griffin embellishes contact here and there. However, he did have somewhat of a point. Andrew Bogut -- one of the league's foremost authorities on "veteran" tactics, as brilliantly discussed by Zach Lowe in a Grantland article -- went overboard in going after Blake Griffin during a rebound opportunity. Doc Rivers said he thought that "Golden State was trying to get Blake thrown out of the game, and it worked." It did work. Andrew Bogut and Chris Paul were in the middle of an after-game scuffle after Paul tried to grab the ball away from Bogut. A shove by Matt Barnes in the back of Bogut didn't help matters, either, but this was clearly the case of two teams with emotions running wild.
A month later, the two teams met again in Oakland. The Clippers came in on the second game of a back-to-back (SEGABAGA) and the Warriors trounced them by 19 thanks in large part to a 16-2 run to start the third quarter. The final meeting between the two teams this season took place at the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles. The Warriors came in on a SEGABAGA and lost by 13. The two teams split the season series, two wins apiece. However, nothing much could be ascertained from these games in regards to postseason prognostication. In the first meeting, a Clippers win, the Warriors came in for a SEGABAGA and lost. The second meeting, Christmas Day, featured two ejections, one of which was erroneous, and came down to the wire with one of the teams being without, arguably, their best player (Blake Griffin) for the final 10:40 as well as without a key cog in the starting lineup (J.J. Redick). The third meeting, a Warriors win, saw the Clippers come in on a SEGABAGA and also without Chris Paul. The final meeting, a Clippers win, featured the Warriors on a SEGABAGA and the Clippers without Jamal Crawford.
In the four meetings in the regular season, something was always missing. Whether it was a key player, a team coming in without rest, or something of the like, these two teams faced each other without an even playing field. When they did play on Christmas Day, and before the ejections, it was what you would have expected. A super close, competitive atmosphere that either team could have won. But, as mentioned earlier, the Clippers were without J.J. Redick, who will be a major part of their success in the playoffs. So, it really is hard to say what the playoffs will hold for this series between these two hated sides when we haven't seen both teams face each other this season on an even playing field from the start.
Since the trade for Chris Paul in December of 2011, the Clippers have yet to win a season series against the Golden State Warriors. In his first year, they went 2-2 against the Warriors. Last year, they were 1-3 and this year they were 2-2 again. In games that first year when both teams were not on a back-to-back, the Clippers went 2-1. Last year, they only played one game against each other when both teams weren't on a back-to-back. The Warriors won, 106-99, after outscoring the Clippers 33-19 in the fourth quarter. That means that over the last three seasons, the Clippers and Warriors have played five out of a possible twelve games against each other with neither team being on a back-to-back. The Warriors have won three of those five games.
On Sunday night in Portland, Andrew Bogut got hit in the ribs and had to leave the game. The Warriors ended up losing in overtime thanks to a LaMarcus Aldridge jumper. The news broke on Monday that Bogut has a fractured rib and will be out indefinitely. Without him, they're left with Jermaine O'Neal as the only real deterrent at center but, while he's been great this season when they've called his number, he's not enough. On top of that, David Lee just returned from a nerve injury in his back and those are always tricky. That means that, even if both were to play in the playoffs, the two Warriors big men would be a tad banged up going into an emotional playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Without Bogut, the Warriors are in a tad of trouble both in the size department and the heart department.
The Clippers have their own injury issues to deal with, however, as J.J. Redick just returned from a complicated back issue and Jamal Crawford is just coming back from various leg issues. They're both reintegrating themselves into the offense and getting used to the speed on defense again. Then there's Danny Granger, who won't play before the playoffs because of a hamstring issue but has participated in shootarounds lately. The Clippers have been the walking wounded all season. They haven't played a single game this year with their full allotment of players.
Despite 82 games of excitement from each team this season, we're finally going to fulfill the "yet" that Doc Rivers spoke of earlier this year. It's going to go away. For, what could be, seven glorious games of battle, the two best teams in the state of California will fight for bragging rights and supremacy. While everyone involved tried their best to avoid calling this a "rivalry" for as long as they could, we'll finally get to watch two hated foes do battle in the playoffs. If the playoffs are indeed where rivalries are forged, then the past few regular seasons have been where the logs were placed and the flames have been stoked.
We'll see technical fouls. We might even see flagrant fouls. There will be moments in time when a fight seems imminent. No matter what happens in this series, both teams have had a truly fantastic season that is worthy of praise. Through adversity, both have risen to etch their name into the Western Conference playoff picture for years to come. These two will be linked together for the foreseeable future. They won't go away. They will fight, slap, push, tug, pull, shove, foul, and hit each other. They will be rivals. And this will, now, be a rivalry.