While the 2019-20 NBA Finals were just over a year ago, the league has already begun their 2021-22 season. After two days of exciting action, the LA Clippers are finally set to play their season opener on Thursday night against the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are already 1-0, having beaten the Los Angeles Lakers on the road Tuesday night; however, this matchup against the Clippers will be their home opener. Excluding the postseason, these two teams are an even 7-7 in their last 14 matchups against each other, dating back to the 2017-18 season when the Warriors were at the peak of their dynasty.
While both teams have changed drastically since then, this matchup is also likely to be closely contested. The Warriors proved on opening night that they can compete with the league's top talent, and the Clippers are hoping to prove that they are right there with them.
At full strength, neither of these two teams would be seeking any approval, as they would both likely be atop the league's favorites to win it all; however, injuries have provided several question marks for both teams. For the Clippers, they are obviously without Kawhi Leonard for an extended period of time. They proved during the playoffs that they can compete at a high level without him, but it has yet to be seen how that will translate over the course of a long season.
For the Warriors, they will begin their third straight season without Klay Thompson. After last appearing in a game during the 2019 Finals, Klay missed the entire 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons with major injuries. The Warriors expect him to be ready by Christmas, but until then, they will need to continue patching together wins without him.
Unfortunately for both teams, Leonard and Thompson are not the only expected absences for this matchup. For the Clippers, they will also be without Serge Ibaka and Jason Preston who are recovering from injuries, Nicolas Batum who is out for personal reasons, and rookie Keon Johnson who is sidelined with an illness. For Golden State, in addition to Klay, they are expected to be without James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Jeff Dowtin, who all missed the team's opener as well.
With both team's being without some key contributors, all eyes will be on Paul George and Steph Curry. In three games vs. the Warriors last season, George averaged 21/8/5 on 45/53/94 shooting splits. For Curry, his performance vs. the Clippers last season varied by game. Curry's three games against the Clippers last season included two performances of less than 15 points, with just one three-point basket in each. These two performances bookended a classic Steph Curry explosion, where he poured in 38 points on 9/14 from deep in a victory.
With an immense lack of support for Steph last season, the Warriors often went how he went. In his two poor shooting performances against the Clippers, both resulted in losses. Contrarily, the Warriors beat the Clippers the night Steph exploded for 38. While early, this Warriors team has already proven the ability to win while Steph shoots poorly, having beaten the Lakers amidst a 5/21 shooting night from Curry.
The Clippers, who no longer have Patrick Beverley to chase Steph around, will need to be the best version of themselves in order to grab a win in their opener. This includes a balanced perimeter attack that is centered on Paul George's ability to create for himself and others. When at their best without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers allow Paul George to facilitate by using his gravity to find one of the many capable shooters the team surrounds him with.
In the minutes Paul George will spend on the bench, the Clippers will rely on players like Terance Mann and Luke Kennard to lead the second unit offensively. These two players have developed a lot of chemistry together, and will be expected to have a big role off the bench for the Clippers this season. With the team no longer having the ability to stagger Leonard and George, there will be an increased responsibility placed on players like Mann and Kennard to provide offense while George rests.
Opening night is never a perfect indication for how a season will go, but it will provide fans with an opportunity to see how the team plans on attacking the regular season while they await Kawhi's return.