LOS ANGELES — Before his team took the court Thursday night, Luke Walton said the Warriors’ execution had gotten sloppy of late. It was why they had a close game against Brooklyn just a few days before. However, the Warriors hadn’t paid a price yet, so he wasn’t sure the message to tighten things up was getting through to his team.
The Clippers sent the message loud and clear — they threw a haymaker at the start of Thursday night’s anticipated showdown. The Clippers were pressuring on defense, forcing stops, then converting those to easy buckets going the other way. Chris Paul came out on fire hitting midrange jumpers and threes, he started 7-of-7 and had 18 of the Clippers first 30 points, added on four assists, plus got a couple early fouls on Curry that forced him to the bench. The Clippers led by 23 at one point in the quarter. The Clippers were clearly the better team.
Yet the lead never felt comfortable. The Warriors needed a challenge, and the Clippers gave them one. The Warriors responded like NBA champions.
Make that the 13-0 Warriors as they came back to beat the Clippers 124-117 in a game that felt about as much like a playoff game as you are going to find in November. Stephen Curry led the way with 40 points for Golden State; Paul had 35 for Los Angeles.
“With six minutes to go in the first quarter, I told the guys ‘we got 42 minutes left in the game — that’s a lot of time,’” Draymond Green said. “We just continued to fight, and even when they were hitting everything, it still never felt like they were controlling the game. When it’s like that, you’ve got a shot at winning.”
This was not a comeback based on big runs by the Warriors — at least until the 22-5 one to close the game — it was them just being smart and chipping away. That 23 point lead was 14 at the half, and then just six by the end of three. By a few minutes into the fourth the lead had completely evaporated.
What Golden State did was tighten up the sloppy play Walton had talked about. In the first half the Clippers were contesting shots, tipping lazy Warriors passes, and challenging everything. However, the Clippers have struggled to sustain their defensive success this season (they are 24th in the league in defensive efficiency) and as the game wore on the Clippers were not getting out on shooters the same way — and they paid the price for that. Down the stretch, the Warriors shooters were getting good looks, and once the ball started popping and the Warriors are shooting in rhythm the Clippers had no chance.
“We finally got stops and stopped turning the ball over, which starts with me” Curry said of the comeback, and the fourth quarter in particular. “We know the recipe against the Clippers is that you can’t give them easy points. Whether they shoot well or not, that’s what fuels their offense — easy buckets in transition off of turnovers. In the first quarter we let it happen, and there was one little stretch in the fourth where their lead went from three to 10 just from our turnovers.
“Once we started getting good possessions on offense, then we got stops because we were able to set our defense and make it tough on them. Then we were able to make some shots and run away with it.”
The Warriors did what they do — what champions do. If they can knock off Chicago Friday night up in the Bay Area — that’s a tough back-to-back — the schedule opens up a little and the Warriors may not lose until we are well into December.
The Clippers also did what they do — not execute under pressure.
The Clippers with their athletic front line are built to make the Warriors pay for going small, with Draymond Green at the five. They didn’t. The Warriors played their small-ball lineup the final 5:40 of the game and were +17 with it. Griffin had just two shots and one point in the fourth quarter (he finished with 27 points).
“We have got to do a better job playing 48 minutes,” Paul Pierce said. “That’s two games in a row versus these guys where we had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. We have up our lead, so we have to do a better job on defense.”
“We had to make it tougher for them,” Paul said. “As the game went on, they got more and more comfortable. And for guys who can shoot like that, we can’t even give them the opportunity.”
“Down the stretch we just have to be a little more together,” Austin Rivers said. “It’s nobody’s fault, it’s all of us, it’s all of us. We have to trust each other more and to understand that it’s not ‘I have to make the big play,’ it’s we have to make this big play.”
The Clippers are saying all the right things. Of course, they did that last season, too.
The Warriors are doing all the right things. They also did that last season, and it worked out pretty well for them.