By Rob Mahoney
The Golden State Warriors' 115-94 win over the Los Angeles Clippers was a fair bit more compelling than the final margin would suggest, even though the Warriors surged to an early lead and the Clips never posed more than a vague threat. Though there were some noticeable outliers in the performance of both teams, Golden State's decisive win provided the backdrop for a look at the full range of each team's performance.
• In the first half, Steph Curry missed two shots and committed a single turnover. Otherwise, he was essentially perfect; as Los Angeles scrambled to keep up with Golden State's aggressive transition game and pervasive ball movement, Curry dropped 25 points in the opening two quarters on 9-of-11 shooting overall while converting four of his five attempts from beyond the arc. Brilliant though Curry was as he sank three-pointers and breathed fire, I came away most impressed by his discretion; he managed to fully exploit his hot shooting without at all burning his team with heat checks or monopolizing the ball on offense. Every shot taken was one well earned or wide open, which if anything was a testament to how effectively (and consistently) the Warriors found Curry during his searing first half. The necessary nod, too, goes to the Clippers' transition defense, which didn't bother showing up until roughly 18 minutes into the game. Curry was able to use the cover of the break (and his plethora of ball-handling teammates, who pushed the ball up-court and allowed him to run a side lane) to slink into open space on the perimeter, and somehow L.A. managed to lose track of one of the Warriors that demands their collective attention at all times.
• A 17-game win streak is impressive on virtually any NBA terms, but one shouldn't overlook the fact that the Clippers' recent schedule has been rather light and airy. While others played weeks of their respective schedules dense with playoff opponents, L.A. had multiple dates with Phoenix, Charlotte, Sacramento, Detroit, and New Orleans scattered among the occasional matchups with second and third-tier teams. We shouldn't sell short the raw achievement of winning 17 straight, but the Clippers' recent winning run does lose some of its luster once we start examining the context.
Plus, although the Clips have done well in their intermittent games against the league's best teams, Thursday night's affair against the Warriors provided a look at what happens when a quality opponent is excellently prepared to defend them. No one should doubt L.A.'s overall offensive credentials (they rank fourth overall in points scored per possession), but Golden State guarded Chris Paul as effectively as any opponent can, starting with great on-ball work from Curry, excellent pressure from the Warrior bigs on any high screen, and a team-wide rotation that forced Paul into difficult cross-court passes. The Clips tried their best to move the ball, but the Warriors helped without gambling -- thereby giving themselves time to recover to the corners and counteract L.A.'s ball movement. Not every opponent can put the clamps on Paul and it's unlikely that even the Warriors would be able to pull off the feat again when these teams meet for a rematch on Sunday, but Golden State played defense informed enough to aggravate the best point guard in the game and masterful enough to keep in check one of the NBA's most potent offenses.
• But even the 21-point victors didn't play a perfect game. First-half turnovers were a problem for a team anxious to get out on the break. The normally sturdy Warriors bench was eclipsed completely by the Clippers' second-unit. Yet most interesting (and worrisome?) of all was how easily the Warriors were unsettled in the third quarter once the Clippers threw the kitchen sink at them in terms of defensive coverages. Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom did a marvelous job of repelling Curry and Jarrett Jack while blitzing the pick-and-roll, and a similarly aggressive philosophy seemed to follow the ball across the floor. Whenever a Warriors player stepped into the slightest bit of open space, their move was immediately countered by a pair of Clippers walling off access to the hoop and encouraging a premature attempt. Curry and David Lee had the ball taken out of their hands entirely, leaving the entire Warrior offense in the hands of Harrison Barnes for a handful of post-up possessions. That trend allowed the Clippers to stay in this game far longer than they had any right to, and if anything were working within L.A.'s offense at all it could've put the outcome of this game in jeopardy. It didn't, and to the Warriors' credit their frazzled play didn't last; after a few minutes of panicked basketball, Golden State simplified its plan of attack and found ways to get the ball back into the hands of their stars. That's ultimately a net positive as this team found yet another way to overcome a strategic obstacle, but I do wonder if there's a bigger weakness at the root of Golden State's third-quarter struggles. Could it really be so easy to knock the Warriors off of their offensive game, and to marginalize both Curry and Lee for what could wind up as being a crucial stretch?