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Clippers vs. Warriors Playoff Preview: A positional breakdown

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs start tomorrow! Robert Flom has already gone through some of the big-picture elements of the LA’s matchup against Golden State, so today, we’ll get a little more specific with a position-by-position breakdown of the starting lineup and some key bench details.

Starting Lineups

Ivica Zubac vs. DeMarcus Cousins

We haven’t really seen this matchup yet, because the two teams only played once after acquiring Zubac, and because of other depth issues, Doc Rivers elected to start Montrezl Harrell for that contest. However, Zubac did play against the Warriors three times as a Laker, and two of those games came against Cousins. Statistically, Zubac’s plus-minus was fine in those meetings, despite three of them being blowouts. But other than the Christmas Day game when Cousins was still injured, it took Zubac a little while to get warmed up. He protected the basket reasonably, but didn’t provide a ton of value on offensively. Even if Cousins is limited, he still provides some heft around the rim that is hard for Zubac to maneuver around.

Defensively, the Clippers elected to let Cousins shoot wide open threes by design, no matter who was at center. That plays into Zubac’s strengths so he can be a deterrent at the basket, and it’s a logical option considering Cousins shot 26.1 percent from beyond the arc this season, per Cleaning the Glass. The Warriors probably wouldn’t try to post up with Cousins, but if they did, it could be productive since Zubac is a lousy post defender.

Even in arguably the worst season of his pro career, Cousins is still a much more talented and complete player than Zubac. A “win” for the Clippers would be a wash at the center position.

Danilo Gallinari vs. Draymond Green

It is really unfortunate for LA that its best player, and best offensive player, plays the same position as Golden State’s best defender. Green is stout at defending pretty much any play type, so Gallinari’s easiest option is probably just shooting over Green given his length advantage. It might seem counterintuitive to put the ball in Gallinari’s hands more often, but Green is outstanding as a help defender, so forcing him to guard the ball-handler as much as possible could help the Clippers.

Gallinari wasn’t great in LA’s win over Golden State in November — that was mostly fueled by the bench — but he was phenomenal in the two-point loss Dec. 23. A few important takeaways from that game: Gallinari played 37 minutes, and he needs to reach a minute total in that neighborhood for the Clippers to have a chance. He also shot 8-of-11 from the field, including 5-of-5 from three. It’s probably unreasonable to expect that kind of shooting performance again, but Gallinari needs to bomb away and get to the foul line. LA doesn’t have a strong enough defense to contain Golden State, and Gallinari is one of the team’s best hopes at generating offensive firepower.

Patrick Beverley vs. Kevin Durant

Earlier in his career, it was possible for small, tough defenders to frustrate Kevin Durant (see: Chris Paul). Now, however, Durant’s game has evolved to the point where he is almost impossible to stop as a scorer. Beverley did a great job defending LeBron James and Paul George, but Durant is on another level as an individual offensive player. He can pull up and shoot over Beverley whenever he wants, and he has been a more willing passer in recent weeks for the Warriors, showing other ways to dominate on that end of the floor. Beverley’s best hope is to deny Durant the ball and just generally frustrate him. I hear he doesn’t like being questioned about his upcoming free agency.

On the other end of floor, it sounds silly to say, but the Clippers need Beverley to hit shots — LA only lost two of the 13 games when Beverley hit three or more 3-pointers. If Durant guards Beverley, the Clipper needs to keep Durant honest so he is forced out of the paint, opening up driving lanes for Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Landry Shamet vs. Klay Thompson

The Clippers got off to a great start in the game Sunday because Shamet made four first-quarter 3-pointers. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s highly likely these games turn into a shootout, and Shamet is arguably the best flamethrower LA has.

For all the talk about how much Shamet learned from JJ Redick in his Philadelphia tenure, Klay Thompson is an entirely different beast. He is in constant motion, which will require Shamet to be consistently active on defense, and that has been a weakness for him while in Los Angeles. The Athletic’s Anthony Slater posited that Shamet could be an X-factor in his preview: if Shamet hits more 3s than Thompson, that could indicate a competitive series.

At the very least, it will be fascinating to see Shamet against an idealized version of himself. Shamet may have to bust out his point guard skills from Wichita State if Thompson closes out hard on him, so hopefully the rookie can maintain his composure in the playoff setting.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Steph Curry

SGA had one of his best games of the season in the first meeting against Golden State, but that was when he was attacking Quinn Cook. Curry is a better defender, and he requires his opponent to expend far more energy on the other end of the floor. Nevertheless, SGA needs to maintain that same attack mentality and continue to earn trips to the free-throw line, if only to make Curry work, though there is a possibility that Warriors cross-match and put Durant on SGA and Curry on Beverley.

On defense, Gilgeous-Alexander ranks in the 83rd percentile defending spot-ups, which should serve him well against Curry, although Curry’s spot-ups are even more deadly than the average shooter. SGA isn’t great coming off of screens, though, and Curry is the master re-locator, so keeping an eye on Curry at all times will be Shai’s toughest task.

Bench

The Clippers’ lone win against the Warriors came when Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell went off, and how Harrell fares against the Golden State backup bigs, of which there are plenty, will be critical. The size of Andrew Bogut may aid the Warriors here, because Harrell had his way with Kevon Looney earlier in the season. Williams has had some big games against the Warriors in the past, including a 50-piece against them last season. This year, he has been more of a facilitator when faced with long perimeter defenders, like Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston, so it will be interesting to watch how he navigates the Golden State defense.

LA will probably have to trim its bench to give Beverley, Gallinari, and Williams more minutes, but expect Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green to keep their minutes, both because they can guard Durant, but also because they space the floor around the Williams-Harrell pick-and-roll. Any players who can’t shoot, like Ty Wallace, Sindarius Thornwell, or even Wilson Chandler if he’s indecisive, don’t really have a place in this series.