Among all NBA teams the Clippers have the best odds ... of embroiling the Warriors in a brawl before Game 1 that results in mass suspensions.
The rivalry—almost certain to be rekindled in the second round—remains the most volatile in the league, and while it has mellowed a bit recently with Golden State's dominance and Blake Griffin's absence, Griffin is back and a playoff series will restore tension. If Griffin's quad injury limits him in any substantial way, the Clippers have no shot. But if he is at or near full strength, they have, well, a puncher's chance.
The Clippers lost all four games with the Warriors this season, but they blew 10-point fourth-quarter leads in two of them. There are a couple ways to look at that. 1) The Clips can't finish the Dubs even when everything is going their way. 2) They are closer than you think. Within the L.A. locker room, players believe in their formula against Golden State: using DeAndre Jordan and Griffin at center in small-ball lineups, switching pick-and-rolls relentlessly and unleashing Jordan on Steph Curry when Chris Paul isn't hounding him.
Two years ago the Clippers ousted the Warriors in the first round, and that was in the midst of the Donald Sterling fiasco. The principals haven't changed much, even if the outlook has. The Clippers need Griffin to heal, Paul to saddle Curry with foul trouble, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford to set arenas on fire with their shooting. And a Draymond Green suspension wouldn't hurt.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers uses the term "emotional hijack" when players succumb to their anger. Usually he employs the phrase when discussing his own team. In this case the Clips have to aggravate the Warriors—which they've proven capable of doing.
Let's assume the Warriors eventually vanquish the Clippers. They'd be on track to face the Spurs in a dream conference finals. But what if it's the Thunder, imbued with confidence from a second-round surprise?
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder can score with the Warriors. Their problem is slowing them. The OKC defense, while solid, is not elite. Like the Clippers, the Thunder can play small with Durant at the four, and they can switch pick-and-rolls, with Serge Ibaka hopping out on Curry.
But Oklahoma City has also looked good with bigger lineups featuring Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. The Thunder are deeper than the Clippers and can tinker with formulas, tabbing Andre Roberson for his defense, Anthony Morrow for his shooting or Dion Waiters for a combination of both. But all those players carry risk. The Thunder will likely rely most on Roberson to blanket the perimeter, but he can't shoot reliably and the Warriors could give him the Tony Allen treatment, sagging off him and clogging the paint to impede Westbrook and Durant.
In the end Russ and KD will have to simultaneously deliver the best series of their lives. They'll have to outshine Curry and Klay Thompson. They'll have to hit the clutch baskets that eluded the Thunder all season. They are still the best duo in the NBA, two of the top five players in the league. They won't be an easy out for anyone.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
THUNDERSTRUCK Durant averaged 36.3 points against the Warriors this season—but Oklahoma City dropped all three matchups.