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NBA Playoff Preview - Los Angeles Clippers vs Golden State

(SportsNetwork.com) - If there are two bloodsport rivals in the Western Conference, it has to be the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, powers of the Pacific Division.

There have been fistfights, elbows to throats, ejections, claims of "cowardly basketball," and old-fashioned physical play.

That was all just on Christmas night!

Actually, three of the four regular-season meetings in 2013-14 featured some sort of physical altercation.

"Not to hype it up at all, but there is no love lost between these two teams," Warriors forward David Lee said after a Golden State loss to the Clippers on March 12.

But, behind all of the silly pushing and shoving, lies a rivalry predicated on two teams that are both offensively proficient and defensively underrated.

The Clippers finished first in scoring this season, with the Warriors 10th. Golden State was also 10th in opponents' scoring and LA came in 14th in that category.

It's hard to get past the "theatrics" as Warriors center Andrew Bogut described it. Just don't call it a rivalry. That's a notion Golden State coach Mark Jackson lamented after their Christmas night bloodbath of a victory.

"I still believe this isn't a rivalry because neither one of us have done anything," he said.

That's a fair point. Both teams have only emerged as perennial playoff teams in the last few seasons.

For the Clippers, who, once again, established a franchise record for wins in a season, they'll try and make up for last year's 4-2 loss in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. LA even had home-court advantage in that series, but things have changed aplenty.

Doc Rivers was acquired from the Boston Celtics for a first-round pick to be the team's head coach. They fought until the very last game of the season with a chance to be the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

Rivers brought in a defensive mindset, but the biggest reason for the team's success rests in its two stars.

Chris Paul is a top-five player in the league. He missed time with a shoulder injury, but his play was, as always, dynamic. However, this season might have belonged to Blake Griffin.

It's pure speculation, but it looks like Griffin may finish third in MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He's been spectacular, refined his game from athletic dunker to offensive force and carried the heavy load in Paul's absence.

Griffin has to be most careful in this series because he appears to be the target of Golden State's prodding. He's the one who got elbowed in the throat, he's the one who's involved in almost every scrum and he's the one who called it "cowardly basketball."

Griffin may be alright because Bogut, the Warriors' main agitator, is not going to play for a while. Bogut, who is also a standout defensive big man, fights notwithstanding, fractured a rib and is out indefinitely.

At least Lee returned to the lineup from a painful hamstring injury.

The Warriors enjoyed watching the sensational Stephen Curry take his game to another level this season. The first-time All-Star averaged career-bests with 24.0 ppg and 8.5 apg.

But it might be all about the physical play. Perhaps the biggest single factor in this series is how the Clippers handle the Warriors' physicality, or even worse, the Warriors' "theatrics."

"Like we've said all season long, it's about us," Paul said. "It's not about them. We have to play our game and do what we're supposed to do and we'll be just fine. We have to realize that each game takes on its own personality. It's one win at a time."

MATCHUPS:

BACKCOURT: Paul is extraordinary. While only playing 62 games this season, he should be First-Team All-NBA. He led the NBA in assists at 10.7 per game and scored a paltry 19.1 points. Paul's defense is very underrated. He impacts the game as much as any player not named Durant or James. It's been tough sledding this season for J.J. Redick. He only played 35 games because of injury, but averaged 15.2 points and shoots 39.5 percent from 3-point land.

Curry and Klay Thompson are one of the league's supreme backcourts. They chuck up 3-pointers at a record-shattering rate. The two went 484-for-1,150 from long distance for 42 percent. Curry improved dramatically as a facilitator, averaging 8.5 assists per game, which ranked fifth in the NBA. Thompson has been inconsistent, but when both shoot well, it's extremely problematic for the opposition.

EDGE: EVEN

FRONTCOURT: If Griffin finishes third in the MVP voting, that's a pretty solid accomplishment. He averaged 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and shot 53 percent from the field. Those are stout offensive numbers and if he can get out in transition, which hasn't been a problem in his career, look out below. Matt Barnes assumed the starting small-forward spot and his forte is defense, pestering the opponent and making 3-pointers, which he does to the tune of 34 percent. DeAndre Jordan improved more than anyone under Rivers, who told him to focus on defense and rebounding. Jordan led the NBA in rebounding at 13.6 and finished third in blocked shots, averaging 2.48 a game. Jordan also scored in double figures at 10.4 ppg.

In Bogut's absence, veteran Jermaine O'Neal is expected to start. The longtime center played 44 games, but won't provide the same physicality or rebounding as Bogut. Lee is a very talented player and almost averaged a double-double with 18.2 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Andre Iguodala was brought in as a free-agent and his defense is valuable. His numbers are decent, but he'll be there to stop the best wing player for the Clippers.

EDGE: CLIPPERS

BENCH: LA's Jamal Crawford is the favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award. He averaged a league-best 18.6 ppg off the bench and anchored a group that surprisingly finished 22nd in reserve scoring. Darren Collison, Glen Davis, Jared Dudley and Danny Granger, who could be back from injury in Game 1, all will see significant time. All are trusted by Rivers and all will make significant contributions for the Clippers at some point during the postseason.

Harrison Barnes was a starter last season, but lost his job with the Iguodala signing. Barnes blossomed in last year's playoffs, but he didn't parlay that into a big sophomore season. With Bogut out, the bench features only Jordan Crawford, the leading second-unit scorer, Steve Blake, Marreese Speights and the versatile Draymond Green. This group came in 24th in bench scoring and hasn't been consistent since coming together.

EDGE: CLIPPERS

COACHING: Rivers won a title with the Boston Celtics and how many coaches in the league would fetch a first-round pick in a trade? He tried to bring defense to the Clippers and succeeded to an extent. Rivers maximized the talents of Griffin and Paul, brought out the beast in Jordan and has made the Clippers into a legitimate title contender.

Jackson has had nothing but success during his Golden State tenure. He orchestrated last year's upset of the Denver Nuggets in the first round and his players would walk through a fiery wall for him. So why is his job in jeopardy if the Warriors lose? According to reports, Jackson and owner Joe Lacob are not seeing eye to eye and couple that with Jackson's dismissal/reassignment of two assistant coaches this season, you get a bizarre time for a head coach. Still, Jackson clearly knows his team and how to get the best out of them.

EDGE: CLIPPERS

PREDICTION: This is a completely different series with a healthy Bogut. He's one of the game's best defensive centers and could police the Clippers high- flying act to some degree. Without Bogut, who, let's face it, is the primary architect of a sadly effective bullying strategy against Griffin, the Warriors don't have many ways of stopping Los Angeles. Sadly, this intense rivalry won't show much in the way of intrigue.

SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: CLIPPERS in FIVE