Ever since Doc Rivers entered the NBA as a player in 1983, he has faced some of the league’s toughest dynasties.
In 1988, Rivers ran point for Atlanta as the Hawks took top-seeded Boston, the Eastern Conference champion four years running, to seven games.
Five years later, Rivers and the New York Knicks took the first two games of the conference finals against a Chicago team chasing a third consecutive NBA title.
“We didn’t give a ...” about the Bulls’ constellation of stars, the Clippers’ coach said. “We thought we were better.”
Such experiences are instructive to understanding the approach of Rivers and his Clippers as they prepare to open the NBA’s postseason against top-seeded Golden State, a team that in the last four years has won more NBA championships (three) than lost first-round games (two).
Rivers professes respect, calling the Warriors “one of the greatest teams to be assembled.” Yet he long ago lost any reverence for super-team opponents. Despite entering a playoff series as a 100-1 underdog, according to the WestGate Las Vegas SuperBook, Rivers is not the only Clipper who thinks that way.
“We all have that mentality,” rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Not scared of nobody.”
The Clippers profess no awe about their first-round matchup because if an upset would represent a massive surprise, it would be just their latest in a string of them this season. The Clippers spent the preseason off the NBA’s radar, and not because their training camp was held in Honolulu. While oddsmakers were setting their over-under total for victories at 35, players were discussing the playoffs over dinners in Waikiki.
Despite turning over nearly half their roster at midseason, the Clippers finished with 48 wins and confidence that has carried into the playoffs.
“I guess all the basketball people are not very smart saying that we couldn’t make it to the playoffs,” forward Danilo Gallinari said. “We’re just a little smarter than them.”
The Warriors’ roster is stocked by players with accolades and rings. The Clippers have three starters under the age of 22 who will make their playoff debut.
“It’s tough because they have three players that are three of the best players in the world,” Gallinari said of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, “and maybe three of the best shooters in the history of the game.”
The Warriors won the season series 3-1 but have yet to play the new-look Clippers at full-strength ahead of a 5 p.m. tipoff for Game 1 on Saturday. In the lone matchup between the teams since the trade deadline — a blowout Warriors win last Sunday — the Clippers were without two starters and a key reserve. Gallinari (ankle), guard Patrick Beverley (hip) and reserve forward JaMychal Green (personal reasons) are all available to start the series. Neither team has reported any injuries.
The Clippers also can’t put much stock in their lone victory against Golden State, from November.
“We have a completely different team,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, and in a way, so do the Warriors.
Durant and teammate Draymond Green traded barbs during and after that Clippers victory, and the internal squabble left everyone around the NBA monitoring the foundation of the Bay Area dynasty for fault lines. Speculation surrounding which team Durant will choose in free agency in July — the very topic Green used to needle his teammate in the fall — has lingered but the two have appeared to mend their relationship and now present a united front, which is bad news for any opponent aspiring to play spoiler.
The Clippers accept the challenge.
“At the end of the day, they can be beaten,” reserve forward Montrezl Harrell said. “I just think that’s the main thing we have to understand there is a game plan that can be executed for them to lose, as well.”
At this time last season the Clippers had already begun vacation after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. Getting back to the postseason was an accomplishment. During the two-day break between the end of the regular season and start of the postseason, however, the champagne stayed corked.
“What are we reflecting on, man?” Harrell said. “We ain’t done. What are we reflecting on? It’s not over.”