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The Third Seed is Within the Clippers' Grasp, and Avoiding the Warriors is Key

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The Clippers' best shot at a championship comes from third place in the conference.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors-Thunder game on ABC Saturday night reminded me of one thing, and showed me another.

What last night's game reminded me was that the Warriors are damn good.  Not just a good basketball team, not even just a better basketball team than the Clippers--quite possibly the most dominant team in NBA history, and while that's a controversial statement, the 53-5 record is incredibly hard to argue against.  Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) summed it up perfectly on twitter tonight in a quote I'm too lazy to scroll and find, so I'll paraphrase: "The Warriors are a such a great team that they get whatever they need whenever they need it."  How much more accurate can it be?  Need a 9-0 run since you're down by 7 with three minutes left?  Got it.  Down 2 with 32 seconds left?  Here, get a quick backdoor and-1 to tie the game and go 2-for-1.  Down 2 without the ball in the waning seconds?  Go ahead and trap Kevin Durant, force a turnover, and get fouled on a last-second shot.  While you're at it, let a 61% free throw shooter hit both from the stripe with the game on the line.

It's truly absurd.  I believe that the Warriors are beatable, but that might just be because I want so badly to believe that, or it might just be that they win in such a tricky, improbable way that I'm still fooled.  I said tonight that the only way to beat the Warriors is to capitalize on their lulls early in the game to build a lead, and then get hot enough on offense down the stretch to hang on when they make their run.  Maybe that's just not possible, or if it is, maybe it's not possible four out of seven games.  We saw it twice with the Clippers, again tonight with the Thunder, and countless other times: very good teams going head-to-head, the underdog beginning to pull away and inching towards the "safe" territory of a double-digit lead in the waning minutes, and BAM!  The Warriors pull off an improbable run, Steph Curry hits several deep, contested, off-the-dribble threes in a row, and a stunned opponent walks away with the loss.

After several days this week where we discussed seeding and match-ups, and contemplated the Clippers' chances against the Warriors and Spurs in the second round, this was a rude reminder that the obvious strategy is to avoid Golden State.  I do believe (again, maybe only because I so badly want to) that the Clippers are capable of defeating Golden State not only in a game but in a series.  Now, I don't think it's particularly likely, but I wouldn't be throwing in the towel--these two teams play close, intense games, they don't like each other, and anything can happen.  What I'm slightly more skeptical of is the Clippers' (or any team's) ability to beat Golden State in a series and then move on to win the next round.  Imagine the combination of the combination of going from playing the all-time great Golden State to a good but flawed team like Cleveland, combined with the physical wear and tear of moving on from a hard-fought series to another one against LeBron freaking James.  Maybe the Warriors' potential eliminator will ride the high to a championship, but as the Clippers found last season over a tremendous series victory over the Spurs, the emotional high of a big game seven win goes hand in hand with the fatigue and injuries that accumulate over 7 hotly contested  games.

What last night's game showed me is that the Thunder play the Warriors very well.  It's a curious match-up, because Golden State plays so fluidly as a team and Oklahoma City is so isolation-based, but it makes a little bit of sense.  With their extreme size and length on the perimeter (Westbrook and Durant are freaks of nature, and Andre Roberson is a 6'7" SG with a 6'11" wingspan) they can match up well with the Warriors' brigade of 6'8" wings, and on the other end, Durant is quite possibly the only player in the NBA who can go shot-for-shot with Steph Curry.  The Thunder effectively guarded Draymond Green, holding him to two points on 0-8 shooting, and effectively shut down the Warriors' three-ball bombing supporting cast while essentially conceding that Curry would get his either way.  As a result, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala combined to go 0-5 from deep, while Klay Thompson shot just 2-9 (though he got 32 points in other ways).  The combination of an engaged defensive effort and Durant and Westbrook's ability to create enough offense to keep up almost led to a win for Oklahoma City.

I might be crazy, but I walk away from that game thinking that the Thunder can beat the Warriors in a series--not that they should, or will, but that they can.  And if I'm the Clippers, I want to do everything possible to let OKC take their shot in the dark against the Warriors before I'm forced to take mine.

The Spurs and Warriors are both great teams.  But the Spurs are mortal.  Kawhi Leonard is a great player who I am very much a fan of, but he's similar to the great player that a lot of playoff teams have--Chris Paul, Damien Lillard, Kevin Durant.  The Warriors don't feel mortal, and neither does Steph Curry.  They feel like something else.  The Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Cavs--they all play the basketball we're used to very well.  The Spurs probably play it a little better than the Clippers do, but the Clippers have a shot.  The Warriors, and Curry, do not play basketball like we're used to.  Their game is different and it largely revolves around their star being different--the most unique talent of this generation.  Just as the Warriors go down in the fourth quarter of games before roaring back in comebacks that are both impossible and impossibly easy, Steph Curry stepped up in the NBA Three-Point contest and (seemingly intentionally) shot slowly and poorly before nailing the last rack to get the exact score he needed to move on to the Finals, where he yielded the trophy to his teammate, Klay Thompson.  It was the same relaxed confidence with which he nailed a 32-foot pull-up to win in overtime tonight, as if amazing feats weren't a big deal to him--and to be fair, we're at the point where they really aren't.  Everyone watching knew he was shooting it and we all knew he was making it too.

The Clippers should be more than happy to give every other team the chance to pull off the upset and beat Golden State in the playoffs before taking aim at them themselves.  That's simply the scenario that gives Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and company the best chance at a NBA title.