Warriors vs. Clippers final score: 3 things we learned from Christmas’ low-scoring finale
What promised to be a shootout instead turned into a brilliant Clippers’ defensive performance in the Christmas nightcap.
The Clippers and Warriors are supposed to produce shootouts. Lob City vs. the Splash Brothers. Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul. Blake Griffin vs. the Warriors’ ball movement.
Instead, we saw both teams have out-of-body experiences, which suited the Clippers well. In desperate need of a win after two straight defeats to San Antonio and Atlanta, the Clippers got one, dialing up the defensive pressure for a much-needed 100-86 victory. The win moves the Clippers to 20-10, tying them with Dallas for fifth in the West. The Warriors fall to 23-5, just a game ahead of Portland for first in the West.
The game was oddly a defensive struggle, though it didn’t appear to be headed that way early on. It looked like the Warriors would pull away early when Stephen Curry made several highlight plays and the Clippers missed 16 shots in a row after making their first.
But Golden State couldn’t get good looks thereafter, allowing the Clippers’ bench to slowly chip away. L.A. eventually went on a 9-0 run to cut the Warriors’ lead to one at halftime, aided in part by Steve Kerr’s decision to sit Curry to end the half so he wouldn’t pick up his third foul.
That proved to be a critical stretch because it gave the Clippers life that carried over to the second half. Griffin set the tone early in the third quarter when he spun away from a Warriors double team and finished through Draymond Green for a hoop and the foul. The Clippers played maniacally thereafter, increasing the pressure of their traps and hounding Curry away from the ball. The offense finally got in gear and the Clippers surged ahead by seven midway through the quarter.
It soon got much worse for the Warriors. Curry stayed in, but the Clippers’ intensity hit a fever point and their offense kept humming. A floater by Jamal Crawford, who rescued the Clippers early when nobody else was hitting shots, put the Clippers up 10 with just under eight minutes remaining. He hit a second leaner over Klay Thompson’s outstretcted arm to push the lead to 12 a possession later, leading to a timeout. The Warriors never got close from there.
3 things we learned
1. This was a gut check for the Clippers
As the rest of the West has taken off, the Clippers have underwhelmed, at least relative to their expectations. They started slowly, raising questions about the supporting cast and whether Blake Griffin had taken a step back. But they’ve now won 15 of 21 since a 5-4 start and appear to be as dangerous as ever, especially with Dallas struggling to integrate Rajon Rondo.
This win in particular shows the Clippers’ resiliency when they dig deep down. The game was the Clippers’ third in four days in three time zones, thanks to a grueling back-to-back that began in San Antonio and ended in Atlanta. Forty-eight hours later, they were back in L.A., and it showed early with that 1-17 start. Most teams would have called it a day and accepted the schedule loss.
Yet the Clippers didn’t fold. Crawford hit key shots to keep the Clippers close early and the rest of the team eventually woke up, using stifling defense to mask any offensive struggles. After getting blitzed early by a Curry explosion, Chris Paul and his teammates vowed to take him out of the game. Curry finished with just 14 points on only 12 shot attempts because the Clippers wouldn’t let him get free. They also made multiple efforts to recover when Curry did move the ball out of traps, cutting off the Warriors’ beloved three-point line.
It was a firm reminder that as good as the West is, the Clippers have not been left behind. Doubt them at your own peril.
2. The Warriors rely too much on Stephen Curry
The Warriors’ ball movement captures the fancy of all hoops fans, but it’s also necessary to cover up a fragile reality: they depend so much on Curry’s shotmaking, especially without Andrew Bogut healthy. Klay Thompson has made significant strides as a player, but he still struggles to attack the basket at times. Other than him, there’s nobody that can get to the hoop and a real spacing problem when Curry is out and non-shooters like Shaun Livingston and/or Andre Iguodala are in.
That puts a huge burden on Curry, one he can’t always carry when teams are allowed to play him physically. This was the Warriors’ bugaboo in last season’s playoff series and it was again in this game. The Clippers slid up to the level of the ball to trap Curry and grabbed him when they could get away with it, which short-circuited the rests of Golden State’s offense. This gameplan is more difficult to execute when Bogut’s screen-setting and dribble-handoff skills are in the lineup, but it has to worry the Warriors that so much of their offensive success lies with one player that can be keyed on in a playoff series.
The Warriors should also be scared that their offense falls apart when Curry rests. This is a multi-year trend that’s gotten worse because teams can cheat off Livingston and Iguodala without worrying about them connecting from three-point range. A healthy David Lee could fix this problem, but he’s still rusty from missing so much time due to injury.
These may sound like quibbles for a team at the top of the Western Conference, but playoff series swing on quibbles.
3. These teams know each other too well
For evidence, consider a play midway through the third quarter. The Clippers prepared to run a snug pick and roll, a set where the point guard starts in the mid-post, goes off a screen coming back out and hopes he gets a lane or can drop it to the big man right by the hoop. It’s a pet play, and usually, Paul can get the ball easily. But in this case, Curry fronted him and had lots of backside help, killing the play before it even started. The Warriors knew what was coming.
The Clippers also knew what was coming, particularly on those drag screens in transition that the Warriors use to free Curry in scramble situations. Curry never got free for threes after the first six minutes, and it’s no accident why.
All this made for a game that wasn’t free-flowing, but was intense. Such is what happens when two teams that know each other so well meet in a game both badly wanted to win. It felt like Game 9 of last year’s Western Conference first-round series (the Warriors took Game 8 in a blowout earlier this year). We’ll sign up for seven more.