LOS ANGELES—The biggest question facing these Warriors is how they will react to adversity when the playoff lights are shining. That's the biggest question facing the Warriors because it's one they can't answer during a scintillating season in which they've put to bed—laid to waste, really—all of the doubts that surrounded the franchise entering the season.
Steve Kerr lacks experience? He should easily win Coach of the Year for overseeing the biggest powerhouse of the post-Michael Jordan NBA. Stagnant offense last year? The new-look Golden State attack finally makes full use of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, evolving into the league's most entertaining and ruthless, light years ahead of its previous incarnations. Can the defense remain elite if the tempo and freewheeling pick up? In a word: yes. Will veterans with big contracts buy into reduced roles? David Lee and Andre Iguodala have handled their transitions out of starting jobs like professionals; well-traveled professionals that believe they have a shot at winning the first rings of their careers.
[daily_cut.NBA]The Warriors came back from a 17-point first-half deficit, without do-everything forward Draymond Green, to score a 110-106 road victory over the Clippers on Tuesday. The win marked Golden State's 10th in a row, which the league's best team (61-13 record) have won by an average of 16.9 points. It also put the wraps on a 16-2 March that included a perfect 5-0 record against projected Western Conference playoff teams. The Warriors have lost just one game to a projected Western Conference playoff team since Christmas (the Thunder, who had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in the lineup), and they haven't lost at home to a projected playoff team from the West since Nov. 11 (Spurs).
Usually, complacency kicks in at some point, but that hasn't been the case. On the contrary, the Warriors consistency has been exceptional despite all of their success. Before All-Star Weekend, Golden State's point differential was +10.9 and its winning percentage was .824. Since All-Star Weekend, Golden State's point differential is +10.6 and its winning percentage is .826. Somehow, its pedal has been pushed all the way to the metal with virtually the exact same pressure for five months straight.
There are no obvious rotational weak links, no major deficiencies on either side of the ball, no glaring mismatch problems, no bubbling ego battles, no major health concerns and no rogue actors. There haven't been any extended dry spells and the Warriors have prevailed over each of the 29 teams in the league, leaving the "pressure" question at the top of the list. The Warriors routinely generate so many easy victories that their biggest worry is how they will respond when playoff games become nip-and-tuck affairs and the size of their viewing audiences balloon.
Needless to say, Tuesday's performance was promising on that front. Rather than curl up in the face of a 30-point first quarter or decide to punt the night without Green, Curry and company responded with both electricity and grit. On one end, Curry buckled Chris Paul's ankles with his crossover dribbles and drained enough jumpers to finish with a team-high 27 points, earning "MVP" chants from the traveling Warriors faithful. On the other end, he fought tirelessly through screens, spinning to get back into position and chasing Paul around the court. Ditto for Klay Thompson, who tallied 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists while flying around throughout a high-energy game. Golden State's obvious depth advantage helped overcome 27 points from Paul and 40 points from Blake Griffin, who flourished in Green's absence.
Golden State has played in just 25 "clutch" games this season per NBA.com, with "clutch" defined as games that are within five points either way in the last five minutes. That's by far a league-low (Cleveland has played in 30 clutch games, which is the second-fewest). Still, the Warriors have an 18-7 record in those games (second-best clutch record in the league, behind Atlanta), and they calmly handled the endgame in a tense environment on national television against the Clippers, making 10 of their 11 free throw attempts in the final three minutes to seal their come-from-behind victory. The game saw hard fouls, disputed calls, and dueling cheers and jeers in the mixed Staples Center crowd, and yet it was Golden State who prevailed in a hostile environment by making fewer mistakes. Clippers forward Matt Barnes was called for a tough foul with 1:09 left while closing out on an Iguodala three-pointer and Paul committed an over-and-back violation after missing multiple late three-pointers.
The night began with Clippers coach Doc Rivers jabbing the Warriors for sitting Green, who officially had a minor shin injury. "They didn't want the risk of going 2-2 with their regular guys," Rivers quipped, referring to what the season series between the two teams would have been had the Clippers won. Told of Rivers' line, Kerr replied: "Either that, or we have a nine-game lead [in the West standings] and we have a couple guys banged up."
Scoreboard, Kerr was saying, and it would be scoreboard again at the end of the evening, as his Warriors departed with a 3-1 season series advantage.
"We let them just get on a roll, and you cannot do that with this team," Rivers conceded afterward.
"Playoff atmosphere" is a badly overused term, but it applied here: Green was the only thing missing from another must-see rendition of arguably the league's best rivalry. Tuesday night had the trash talk, the ever-present bad blood, the slew of spectacular highlights and the juicy positional showdown between Curry, the leading MVP candidate, and Paul, as worthy a nemesis as you'll find.
Every favorite needs a foil to push it, and these proud Clippers are a natural fit in that role, totally uncomfortable with the idea that the Warriors have taken command of their division and conference, willing to play each of its starters 38-plus minutes in pursuit of a message-sending victory. Instead, the Warriors reaffirmed their status as the team to beat this year, again, responding to the challenge with maximum effort, late-game poise and an unwavering commitment to a nonstop attack that is simultaneously loose and crisp.
The Warriors' regular season has set a high bar, and the other shoe—in the form of massive expectations—will drop sooner or later. Tuesday's win should serve as a teachable moment for Kerr, who can point back to this victory with pride given its adverse conditions. Kerr believed it was Curry's behind-the-back dribble sequence, a filthy stop-on-a-dime play that caused Paul to fall to the ground in a scene instantly the subject of social media memes, that "kicked us into gear."
Trailing before halftime, on the road, against a fierce and talented opponent, playing without his team's designated heart and soul, Curry unleashed a wicked highlight that will draw millions of YouTube views in the coming days.
"I snaked through the paint and [Paul] was trailing and I thought I could make a move back to the basket," Curry said. "Somewhere with the creativity in between doing the double move ... I saw him go down [and] I knew I had to shoot it and see what happens."
More important than what the move suggests about Curry's rise to the top of the point guard rankings and the MVP conversation is what it says about his leadership response. Given the choice to rise or to shrink from the moment, Curry opted for a third path: to tantalize. Surely, no one will complain if that becomes the defining theme of the 2015 playoffs.