Proximity sparks modern playoff rivalries

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
4:13
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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If you can't wait for the Los Angeles Clippers-Golden State Warriors series to begin, if watching the "Bad Boys" 30 for 30 documentary made you all nostalgic for back-in-the-day rivalries, you'd better hope the NBA keeps the conference playoff format.

This year's West-East disparity has people rushing to their keyboards to scrap the geographic divide and simply take the teams with the 16 best records, regardless of their location. That way everybody's favorite lottery-bound team, the Phoenix Suns, would have a place in the postseason party instead of a seat in Secaucus. The sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks could stay home.

But you know what else would not happen in the first round under that scenario? Clippers-Warriors, the series even players and coaches on other teams are talking about with anticipation. This is the matchup that generated nine technical fouls, two ejections and one flagrant foul during four regular-season meetings. It's the series that Clippers forward Matt Barnes said will include "some hostility and animosity and hatred."

If you took the top 16 teams, you'd have the Clippers against the Washington Wizards. Where's the history there? (Ummmm... one-time Clippers draft pick Danny Ferry is the son of former Washington general manager Bob Ferry?)

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin and Andrew Bogut
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Clippers and Warriors have met eight times in the past two years, sparking a heated rivalry.
Proximity, as much as familiarity, breeds contempt. That's why divisions and conferences haven't completely outlived their usefulness. Even though this is the first playoff meeting between the Clippers and Warriors, they've had eight contentious regular-season games the past two years. There have been hard fouls, outright mocking from the sidelines, turf battles and stare downs. It's as much a part of this series as the superstar point guard matchup between Chris Paul and Stephen Curry.

"I'm not sure you can leave the emotions behind," Blake Griffin said. "I think both teams need that, to a certain extent. You can't be too emotional to where it's affecting your play, but you've got to play with some emotion. You can't take that out of the game."

And thanks to this playoff format, you can't make it easier for these teams to hide on opposite sides of the bracket.

Conference playoff formats played a huge role in the Detroit Pistons rivalries, too, as seen in the "Bad Boys" documentary. The most amazing statistic in the film was the 24 games the Pistons and Boston Celtics played in two seasons, thanks to two lengthy playoff series and 11 regular-season meetings, back when there were only 23 teams to fill out the 82-game schedule.

Of course, the most memorable part was the footage of the hard punishment inflicted by (and against) the Bad Boys, with such little punishment from the officials and the league.

"It was incredible," Barnes said. "It was physical -- the stuff they did to [Michael] Jordan and [Larry] Bird.

"It was just physical basketball. They may have even tried to hurt each other back then. You kind of just wish that the game [today] could be a little more physical.

"If I did some of those fouls last night that I saw, I'd have to find a new job. Take my kids out of private school, cut my wife's allowance. We'd be in trouble."

What the documentary didn't show was the real aftermath of the Bad Boys, who showed that superior talent could be taken out by rough play. The New York Knicks took it from there, and by the mid-'90s some of the grace of the sport was lost. When Jordan took his sabbatical from 1993 to 1995, what was left was a league of slower play and lower scores.

Clippers-Warriors gives us a modern-day remix of the old rivalries. It's ornery, but artistic. There will be elbows at close range, but also long-distance shots by Curry and Klay Thompson. There will be trash talk, but also high-flying jams by Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

The primary common link to Pistons-Celtics or Pistons-Bulls? The conference playoff format made their meeting much more likely.

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