When the Warriors visit the Clippers on Wednesday night, the two Pacific Division rivals will play the type of game that needs no extra hype. Years of bad blood and hard feelings. Star-studded head-to-head matchups. Two championship coaches. The NBA’s No. 1 offense (Golden State) and the NBA’s No. 1 defense (LA). The NBA’s top two teams by point differential. And, of course, Marreese Speights’s revenge mission.
Those pregame storylines were already being written, and then Golden State’s Klay Thompson delivered the latest sign of his Superteam’s incomprehensible ceiling by exploding for 60 points in less than three quarters against Indiana on Monday. Now that the Kevin Durant-infused Warriors have things rolling, can anyone in the West stop them?
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For the Clippers and coach Doc Rivers, trying to take down the Warriors is a tall and familiar order, one that’s been especially painful in recent years. After the Clippers beat the Warriors in seven games during the first round of the 2014 playoffs, Steve Kerr and company have compiled a 7-1 record in head-to-head matchups over the last two seasons, with wins in six consecutive contests.
The Crossover caught up with Rivers by telephone during LA’s road trip last week, one day before his club scored its most impressive victory of the season, a 113-94 blowout of the Cavaliers in Cleveland. Rivers, now in his fourth season in LA, offered his thoughts on facing the Warriors, his approach to competing against Superteams, and how well the Clippers (16-6) have fared compared to his preseason expectations.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Ben Golliver: Golden State beat you 120–75 in the preseason opener. Do you show your team tape from that game before Wednesday?
Rivers: “No, I don’t think I have to. Number one, that was a preseason game. Number two, when I was a player, I don’t think I needed to be reminded about getting my butt kicked. I don’t think my players do either.”
BG: Blake Griffin, among others, generally refuses to call Warriors–Clippers a rivalry despite the recent history between these two teams. Most outside observers would call this a rivalry. Where do you stand?
Rivers: “I know the Lakers and Celtics were a rivalry. Now, we have these quick drive-through rivals where you have one go at them and all of a sudden you’re a ‘rivalry.’ We’ve only played the Warriors in one series [in 2014]. We won that. I guess that started the rivalry.
“Even before I got here, I heard all this talk about these two teams not liking each other. That’s good. Maybe we’ve got an ‘in-state rivalry.’ I don’t really care one way or the other. We want to beat them and they want to beat us. Not because we don’t like them, maybe we do or maybe we don’t, but we want to beat them because they’re in our way. We’d like to be in their way but we really haven’t been the last two years.”
BG: You mentioned recently that you try to keep your team’s attention focused internally. Does that become a tricky balance when you’ve got measuring stick games like Cleveland and Golden State in the same week?
Rivers: “It’s so not tricky. I think that’s only tricky for the media, not for teams.
“The one thing I’ve learned and know for a fact: if we beat Golden State and Cleveland, does that mean we’re going to win the title? No. if we lose to them, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to win the title. What it means is that right now, we’re better or they’re better.”
BG: You coached a ‘Superteam’ in Boston and now you’re chasing a 73-win Warriors team that adds Kevin Durant over the summer. Where do you stand on the competitive balance issue these days?
Rivers: “I don’t think it’s ever bad to have good teams. Whether that’s two, three, four or five. I don’t think that’s ever going to change much. There’s never going to be a scenario where 16 teams can win a title. Never going to happen, doesn’t make sense. There’s not enough talent to ever have that.
“[The Cavaliers and Warriors] have won titles. They have championship swagger. They’ve earned that right. I don’t think anyone should have a problem with earning it. We haven’t earned the right to stride like them. No one has. There’s only two teams that can do that. To the victors go the spoils.”
BG: You started hot at 14-2 and then dipped a bit on this recent road trip. You got ejected and then went after your team a little bit after the double-OT loss to the Nets. Taking everything into account, where is your team relative to your preseason expectations?
Rivers: “Nothing big happened on the road trip. There’s a difference between [getting complacent] and what happened [during the Nets loss]. I thought we got up in that game and let our guard down. We decided to turn that game into a show. That’s different. The other [road] losses, there were a lot of reasons. We didn’t have a practice in three weeks. When we looked at the schedule before the season, we knew this wouldn’t be an easy stretch. We thought we’d win games that we haven’t.
“If you told me this would be our record right now, we’d take it. But I’m a coach and I want more. That’s my job. We’ve got to have our team feel that way and I think they do. I’ve always been at the point where I want my players to believe it more than me, to believe how good we can be more than me. I think we do, but that’s something we work on.”
BG: You have the best defense in the league. You mentioned last week that Luc Mbah a Moute should be an All-Defensive candidate. What else do you view as the drivers of success on that end?
“The obvious guys: Chris [Paul] and DeAndre Jordan. Chris wants to be a winner. That’s his driving force in his life right now. He’s in a good place there. That’s been good for us. And DJ has been off the charts with his help and his talk.
“I think Blake [Griffin] has made a huge improvement, a big step up. He’s healthy and he’s mentally ready to play all phases of the game. He’s very important. He’s just in a great comfort place. He understands exactly what we need from him. He’s consistent with his effort and energy. He’s locked in and it’s great to see.
“[With Jordan and Griffin], we can trap when we want to. We don’t it that much but we can do it because of their size and speed. We can switch as well and they can guard guards, that’s huge for us. When teams go small, we can stay big. We don’t have to go small because no one’s quickness is going to overwhelm us.
“And then surprisingly, it’s our bench guards. Raymond [Felton] and Austin [Rivers]. They can switch and guard bigger guys, Raymond can put pressure on the ball, and Austin is guarding three positions every night.”
BG: Your bench unit has gotten a lot of attention for playing well this season compared to previous versions. Has that impacted your philosophy when it comes to your lineups and rotations?
Rivers: “It has changed my approach. We came into the season wanting to stagger [minutes for Paul and Griffin] more than we ever have. That’s something we haven’t done and something that I was going to do. But right now we’re playing the five-man units a lot because that second unit has come in and helped us win three games this year when the starters had all minuses. We still won the game. That’s unheard of.
“That bench group [Felton, Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce and Speights] has the ability to explode. [Speights’s range] is the whole difference. When we have Speights and [Wesley Johnson or Pierce], everyone is out behind the three-point line. That affords Raymond, Jamal and Austin to attack the basket because there’s no one down there. That’s why our guards have been so successful attacking the paint.”
BG: You have four starters who can become unrestricted free agents next summer. Did you approach last summer’s moves, like re-signing Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford to long-term contracts, planning for a possible last stand?
Rivers: “We knew with the group that we had last year and how we played, how the chemistry was growing, we wanted to keep that as much like as possible. And then add veterans.
“Our whole thing was to add veterans. Alan Anderson, Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, that was better than we ever thought we would do. We’re happy that we did it. We have a group that has come together at the right time. We have a bunch of guys who have been in the league. The only reason they want to play is to win.”
BG: Last season, you had some major midseason moves with Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Jeff Green. Do you anticipate juggling this roster at the deadline or is this a finished product?
Rivers: “I think we’ve got the roster we need to be ready for the playoffs right now. That doesn’t mean we won’t make changes, but I like our roster right now. We’re much further along than the last few seasons. Adding some of the guys to this mix has been pretty good. We’ve just got to be ready when the playoffs start. All the questions will be answered then.”
BG: Have you sensed a change in your team’s self-belief during the hot start, given some of the big wins over quality teams?
Rivers: “I think [our confidence as contenders] has grown. Our guys said it and believed it, kind of. But you don’t really believe it until you get into the season and start playing. I think now that they’ve started playing, they know they can. I think that’s a belief that this team has.
“We know in our hearts that we’re good enough. We also know, when the playoffs start, we have to be good enough in every area and be ready in every area. Mentally, physically, trust-wise everywhere. That’s the only way it’s going to work for us or any of these other teams that we’re talking about.”