When the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers and No. 6 seed Golden State Warriors were matched up in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the series looked to feature regular-season antagonists made significantly less equal by an injury to Warriors center Andrew Bogut. The conventional wisdom said there would be moments of intrigue, but that the Clippers' essential advantage would make it a short series.
That prediction proved so untrue as to be laughable. The controversy and banishment of Donald Sterling obviously turned it into something a whole lot more complicated than a simple basketball series. On the court, though, it was one of the most fascinating matchups of a ridiculously entertaining first round.
Game 7 proved to be a worthy finale. The Clippers came away with a 126-121 win and will now face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, but that result communicates very little about the game itself. It was a battle between two fiercely competitive teams, each playing with its own emotion and strengths.
It started with the Warriors taking control. For a team known for its perimeter shooting, Golden State did not excel in that area throughout the series, shooting only 33 percent from long range in the first six games. But that's exactly how the Warriors gained an early advantage, shooting 9 of 13 (69.2 percent) from deep and 24 of 41 (58.5 percent) from the field in the first half. Stephen Curry (13 points on 4-of-7 shooting, plus six assists) and Draymond Green (13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and 3-of-3 from deep) led the way, but it was a team effort. They closed the half on a 15-7 run to take a 64-56 lead, and it looked as if the Warriors may have recaptured their shooting form at just the right time.
Unfortunately for them, those first-half numbers were also so good that they seemed unlikely to be repeated. That proved to be the case, and the Clippers took control in the third quarter, building a 87-79 lead with 56 seconds left in the period. With the Warriors missing jumpers and Chris Paul starting to become the primary presence in the game, the Clippers looked on their way to a win.
But the Warriors, though theoretically the team that would need to rely on finesse in the series, proved themselves to have untapped reserves of toughness for the umpteenth time. A Green 3-pointer and two Curry free throws cut the lead to three points before the end of the quarter, and Jordan Crawford served as an unlikely sparkplug with seven points in the opening 2:31 of the fourth quarter to give the Warriors a 94-91 lead. The Clippers, a team that had a 34-0 home record in games they led after three quarters, looked in danger of ending their season.
Los Angeles made more plays and came away with the victory, but it would be wrong to say Golden State failed to rise to the occasion. In a back-and-forth, hotly contested final nine minutes, both teams traded big moments and played to an effective standstill up until the last few possessions. On the Warriors side, Curry used some clever dribbling moves to get to the line for nine free throws, hitting them all. Yet it was Green who arguably had the biggest impact, making his presence known at both ends. A second-round pick in the 2012 draft, Green has very quickly developed into one of the most promising role players in the NBA, the sort of guy who figures to play for contenders for the bulk of his career.
Ultimately, though, the Clippers were just too much to handle. Paul, hobbled throughout the series with a variety of physical issues, was stellar in the second half with 15 points and eight assists. J.J. Redick also chipped in with a big 18-footer and two huge late free throws to make it a four-point game with 12 seconds remaining.
For all those contributions, it was fairly clear that the Clippers won because Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan took over late. The extremely athletic interior duo hooked up for alley-oops, blocked shots, finished plays, grabbed rebounds, made put-backs — you name it, they did it. If the series initially looked to hinge on the Warriors lacking a center to check these players in the paint, then it was ultimately decided on the same factor. They scored 12 of the Clippers' 14 points from the 3:39 to 0:22 marks, turning a 107-106 deficit to a 120-115 advantage. That's also the stretch that won the series. The biggest play came in the form of this twisting and-one finish from Griffin:
Not a bad dismount, either.
The Warriors go home as losers, but they made an impression in their second straight postseason, taking a very talented team to the brink when they appeared at a severe disadvantage. In most circumstances, this result would mark them out as a team to watch in 2014-15. However, the uncertain status of head coach Mark Jackson, speculated to be fighting for his job this postseason, puts the team's future into jeopardy. It's best not to say more until the situation plays itself out over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, the Clippers will continue their season under what continue to be awkward circumstances. While their success on the court has taken some attention away from ongoing ownership questions, it also figures to be a point of discussion for quite some time. Whatever effect these off-court issues have had on the team, it's clear the players haven't struggled to keep up the intensity of playoff basketball. If nothing else, this series was a grand testament to how much players want to win in the postseason.
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