- The Clippers refused to quit attacking, which has proved a perfect counter to the nonchalant Warriors. While Golden State is talented beyond measure, Doc Rivers' group demands their complete attention.
OAKLAND, Calif.—The Clippers are the rare eighth seed capable of making demands. Any team unlucky enough to draw the Warriors in a playoff series comes to it at a disadvantage; no other club will have a Kevin Durant, a Stephen Curry, a Draymond Green, or a Klay Thompson, or in the Clippers’ case, a single star on the level of any of them. Rather than compete on those terms, the Clippers reject the premise. The best underdogs aren’t oblivious to their odds, but undaunted by them. They withstand scoring flurries from stars like Durant. They scramble through possessions that seem doomed to fail. And in doing so, they force a juggernaut like the Warriors to live in the present rather than barrel towards some championship eventuality.
What the Clippers exact is their opponent’s complete attention. Anything less risks death by a thousand pick-and-rolls, which is exactly what did in the Warriors, 129-121, in Game 5. Lou Williams (33 points, 10 assists) will punish the slightest negligence, while Montrezl Harrell (24 points on 14 shots) overwhelms with intensity. It turns out that playing lousy defense is no antidote. The defending champions tried to shoot their way out of this series and failed, wasting a sensational, 45-point showing from Durant in the process. It’s not enough to have the best players in this series. To beat the Clippers, the Warriors have to show them something: investment on both sides of the ball from start to finish. Any let-up from Golden State risks giving up a lead, or in this case, giving up a game.
“We kept attacking,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We kept running. We kept spreading the floor and moving the ball.”
It’s that quality that makes the Clippers a perfect first-round opponent for the most nonchalant Warriors team yet. Consider them a jolt to the system; even if Golden State’s playoff run isn’t in any real danger, the way that L.A. plays requires that they be treated as a credible threat. They demand a consistent focus—something that no other matchup would have. It’s a marvel to see that requirement in action. Golden State scored 63 points in the first half on 51% shooting with just four turnovers and somehow trailed by eight. “They have talent all over the floor,” Curry said. “They've got guys that can knock down shots. And their bench, it's been talked about all year with what Montrezl and Lou bring and that force they bring.”
The layout of the Clipper rotation presents its own problems. The starting lineup can hold its own through Danilo Gallinari and a cast of smart, situational scorers. Then, just as the Warriors begin to cycle through some of their lesser lineups, Williams and Harrell storm the gates. Not only do the Warriors’ reserves then have to contain one of the most dangerous pick-and-roll tandems in the league, but also put up enough points to outpace them. Apply enough pressure, and the Warriors—who don’t have all that many authentic challenges, frankly—will start to feel it. Collectively, the Warriors acknowledged that a lack of urgency hampered them from the start. Once behind, coach Steve Kerr saw his team rushing: playing to the crowd with quick-trigger attempts and cutting corners in the offense to catch up.
Even when those attempts worked, it seemed that Williams always had an answer. Of all the dynamics at work in this series, none is so delightful as watching Williams—a journeyman scorer playing for his fifth team in six years —take on the world. Every Warrior knows that Williams wants to glide to his left for a pull-up jumper, which has given him incredible latitude going to his right. A slight bump might be enough to separate from Klay Thompson, or a quick hesitation move all that’s needed to shake Durant. Even Andre Iguodala, who knows Williams’ game as well as anyone, is often at the mercy of the smaller guard. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m gonna stop Lou Williams tonight,’” Durant noted. “You just gotta hope you’re locked in enough to stop him.”
It should go without saying that the Warriors were not—or to the extent that they were, it came far too late. Sometimes Golden State needs a bit of prompting to treat a situation with the seriousness it deserves. “This team has a habit, since I’ve been here for sure, of when we get a nice lead, we tend to relax just a little bit,” Durant said. The same apparently goes for their lead in this series. A closeout effort should never be quite this casual. Yet there were the Warriors, allowing the 6'1" Patrick Beverley to steal rebounds from a crowd of blue jerseys; rotating late and bailing out the Clippers with fouls; and banking on Durant to save the game in a way that became their undoing.
Even a margin for error as large as Golden State’s is not infinite. Expect their tone in Game 6 to better reflect that. Kerr already acknowledged it with his second-half rotation, which kept Durant on the floor at the start of the fourth quarter and stretched his minutes to 41. It’s possible we’ll see even less of Andrew Bogut, who hasn’t had a natural matchup in this series since JaMychal Green replaced Ivica Zubac in the Clippers’ starting lineup, which would mean either more Kevon Looney or more high-intensity center minutes for Green. Curry will surely like a word after a somewhat muted performance. In the moment, the Warriors seemed slightly annoyed that the Clippers wouldn't be dispatched so easily. In retrospect, the Warriors may come to appreciate that competitive obstinance as just the wake-up call they needed.