Although it's impossible to ignore the impact that Adam Silver’s decision to ban Donald Sterling from the NBA for life has had on the Clippers organization and the NBA as a whole, it's unfortunate that the Sterling story has distracted from what is happening on the court. With the basketball world paying extra attention to this series due to storylines that go far beyond the box score, the Warriors were able to hold off the Clippers in Game 6 to send this series to a Game 7 tonight.
So far in this series, we have seen the stars shine, each team win one by blowout and both teams steal one on the others’ home court. This series has had a little bit of everything, and has been about as even as any series could be through six games.
With all of that said, as much as I would love to see the Clippers and Warriors play each other another five times, one team will advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals after tonight, and one will go home unsatisfied. Here's a look at some of the key players, matchups to watch and predictions from both myself and the computers.
Clippers Player to Watch - Blake Griffin
Although Chris Paul is the guy that really makes this Clippers offense go (his league leading 48.9% assist percentage should tell you everything you need to know), L.A. is at their best when Blake Griffin is the focal point of their offense. Griffin's value to this Clippers squad has really been on display throughout this series, too. Although he struggled with his shot in L.A.'s Game 6 victory, Blake was the best player on the floor in both of the Clippers first two wins in this series including a ridiculous 35 points on 13 of 17 shooting in Game 2.
As good as Griffin has been in L.A.'s wins, he has been equally bad in their losses. The Clippers star has relied too heavily on his jump shot this series and hasn't aggressively attacked the rim nearly as much as we've grown accustomed to, especially in L.A.'s losses. In those three games, Griffin has only been to the free-throw line a total of 11 times, when he had 10 trips to the charity stripe in the Clippers Game win alone. Despite the fact that Griffin has struggled from the line at times, it's imperative for him to put pressure on David Lee, Draymond Green and the Warriors' defense in order to force the Warriors' big men into foul trouble and get the Clippers into the bonus early.
Speaking of foul trouble, one of the main reasons why Blake is the Clippers' player to watch is because the Warriors have done a tremendous job attacking Griffin on the defensive end, forcing him to the bench early because of fouls. The former Oklahoma Sooner has already fouled out of two games this series - both Clippers losses - and he's had five fouls in another. If the Warriors are once again able to get Griffin into early foul trouble, it could be a long night for the Pacific Division champions.
Warriors Player to Watch - Draymond Green
With Andrew Bogut forced out of this series due to a rib injury, and old man Jermaine O'Neal struggling, Draymond Green has stepped into a much bigger role than he had during the regular season. And he's performed admirably.
The Warriors' second-year forward is recognized as one of the best energy guys in the league, but he's never really been known as a stat sheet stuffer. But stuffing the stat sheet is exactly what he has done all series, averaging 9.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game, all of which shatter his regular season averages.
Due to O'Neal's struggles, Coach Mark Jackson has been compelled to use a smaller lineup for much of this series, inserting Green into the starting lineup for the past three games. With Draymond on the floor more often, he's often been left on an island guarding Griffin and, for the most part, the former Michigan State Spartan has answered the call. Green has slowed Blake down on the block and forced him to rely on his jumper, keeping him off of the free throw line and not allowing Blake to get into a rhythm. The defensive spark that Green has provided has been one of the main keys to the Warriors' success in this series.
Green has been especially productive in the past two games of this series, both double-doubles. In Golden State's Game 6 victory, Draymond dropped 14 points, 14 boards, 5 steals, 4 assists and a block. The former Michigan State Spartans' 14 rebounds is the most that any Warriors' player has contributed in any game this series. Green's ability to clean the glass and limit the Clippers' second chance opportunities could be a deciding factor in tonight's series' deciding game.
Matchup to Watch - DeAndre Jordan vs. David Lee
I can't believe it took me this long to mention DeAndre Jordan's name considering how good he has been through the first six games of this series. Jordan has been nothing short of spectacular on the boards this series, posting the game high in rebounds in five of the six games so far, including 22 in Game 3. Additionally, DJ, who led the league in both rebounding and shooting percentage this season, has been ridiculously efficient on the offensive end this series. Jordan has only missed eight of the 30 shots he's taken over the last six games - that 73.3% shooting percentage is by far the best out of all players in this series.
DJ has been particularly impressive in games where the Warriors have played more of a smaller lineup. Although Jordan did not take a single shot in the Clippers' blowout loss in Game 5, Jordan is averaging 12.25 points and 16.25 rebounds in the four games where Green has played 30-plus minutes compared to the 11 points and 11.5 boards he is averaged in the first two games of the series.
Why the huge disparity in games where Golden State plays a smaller lineup, you ask? The answer is because David Lee is forced to defend DJ when both he and Green are on the floor and Lee is simply not as good of a defender as Jermaine O'Neal is. Lee's inability to slow Jordan down has been a huge detriment to the Warriors. If the Clippers' center is able to put together another game that closely resembles his 25 points and 18 rebounds from L.A.'s Game Five victory, Golden State stands little chance of advancing to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
Our algorithms give the Clippers a 69.7% chance of knocking off the Warriors, and I tend to agree. Golden State has relied heavily on hot shooting from Curry and Thompson in their three victories this series, while L.A. has won their three games on the backs of their big men. Although Jermaine O'Neal will dress for tonight, I expect the Warriors to continue to trot out their smaller lineup for the majority of this game and for the Clippers to continue to take advantage of those mismatches on the block.
While I'm confident that Curry and Thompson will make their fair share of shots, hot three-point shooting is simply not as easy to replicate as dominant paint play is, and ultimately I think that will be the Warriors downfall. I expect huge games from both Griffin and Jordan in a hard-fought Game 7 victory for the Clippers.