With only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, it’s clear there are few teams in the NBA that can match the top-to-bottom talent of the Los Angeles Clippers — from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at the top, to a bench that is tied (with the Milwaukee Bucks) for sixth-best in overall +/-.
When it comes to elite superstars, however, no team in the league is as stacked as the Brooklyn Nets, who, when intact, feature a starting lineup led by Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
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But because of injuries and personal reasons, Durant, Harden and Irving have shared the hardwood in only seven games this season, making it difficult to predict just how dominant the Nets will be in the postseason. They still remain the odds-on favorite to win it all, but given the big three’s lack of time together and the team’s issues on the defensive end (Brooklyn is 24th in defensive rating), a title is anything but a foregone conclusion.
On Friday, The Athletic’s Alex Schiffer and Seth Partnow examined which teams have the best shot at knocking off the Nets in the playoffs, including how the squads from Los Angeles might fair if they were to meet the Nets in The Finals.
Clippers Athleticism Could be Difference Maker
Though ultimately higher on the Lakers‘ chances of knocking off the Nets, Partnow was only slightly less sold on the Clippers, citing their multitude of “rangy wing athletes who could bother Brooklyn’s stars“ with “a lot of different looks” on defense — presumably referring to Leonard and George in addition to Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum and Patrick Beverley.
Partnow also pointed to the toll guarding Leonard and George will take on the increasingly oft-injured and rail-thin Durant.
“While the Nets are probably better equipped to guard Kawhi Leonard and Paul George than they are (Lebron) James and (Anthony) Davis,” said Partnow, “guarding either might be a bit taxing on Durant, and we don’t really know how well his body would hold up to that kind of assignment as well as his offensive burden, having already won three series.”
After sitting out all of last season with a torn Achilles, Durant has played in only 30 games this year, missing two months in February and March with a hamstring injury and then three games in April from a thigh contusion. But when Durant has played, he’s played well, averaging 28.0 points on 53.8% shooting while chipping in 5.1 assists.
He wasn’t active for Brooklyn’s 108-112 victory over the Clippers on February 21 — the last time the two teams met — but he was very active in their first meeting, on February 2, scoring 28 points on 11-for-13 from the field in the Nets’ 124-120 win. (Brooklyn’s big three combined for 90 points in that first game.)
Bubble Debacle Last Season Hampering Expectations
Unlike Partnow, Schiffer was unwilling to view the Clippers as contenders just yet.
“In my opinion, the Clippers have to prove it after last year before we discuss them,” said Schiffer.
Last year the Clippers entered the playoff bubble with the second-best record in the West, but were knocked off by Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets in the conference semis despite jumping out to a 3-1 series lead.
L.A.’s meltdown against Denver, which was punctuated by a miserable 10-for-38 shooting performance between George and Leonard in Game 7, has hung over the Clippers’ head all season and effectively tamped down title expectations despite consistently being near the top of the Western Conference standings. The Clippers, though, are not the same team that they were last year.
New head coach Ty Lue, who took over for Doc Rivers before the season began, has witnessed the continued development of youngsters Mann and Ivica Zubac, and L.A. bolstered its playoff credentials with the offseason acquisition of former champion Serge Ibaka (144 career playoff appearances) and the midseason trade for Rajon Rondo (121 playoff games) who owns two rings, the most recent coming last year with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ibaka, who is a three-point threat and an elite rim protector when healthy, has been out since mid-March with back spasms but hopes to return in time for the playoffs. And Rondo, who was picked up primarily for his playoff wizardry, has already paid dividends filling in for formerly-injured starting point guard Patrick Beverly. The Clippers are 10-4 when Rondo has seen action and it’s hoped that, in the playoffs, he can help keep Leonard and George fresh by lessening their playmaking and ballhandling responsibilities.
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