Maybe he was exaggeratedly cooling off his hands. Maybe he was signaling fans for more noise. Both explanations worked for Stephen Curry as he stood along a baseline whipping his arms in circles, as even a crowd conditioned to years of his astonishing shooting displays slowly rose from the front row to the upper deck.
It was true that there was something that Curry did not do right in Thursday’s first quarter against the Clippers. He had one turnover. But by every other basketball standard, he was perfection in blue Under Armours for 12 minutes.
He drew a foul within the game’s first 10 seconds. He created open space with pump-fakes, then finished with a swish. He drilled three-pointers off the dribble, from the corner and rolled in a fast-break layup — after first stripping Clippers star Paul George as he jumped to shoot a three-point attempt.
Nine shots, nine makes and 25 points later, while his teammates bounced toward their sideline huddle with a 17-point lead after one quarter, Curry paused in front of the courtside seats to yell and wave his arms. He made his first 10 shots and the Clippers found themselves starting a new season right where they finished their last one, facing a daunting deficit.
Taking a cue from last summer’s resilience, the Clippers did not wave a white flag. Leading at halftime, and by three points after three quarters, their comeback hinged on the shot-making of George, who finished with 29 points, a commitment to smaller lineups and defensive pressure that turned Curry temporarily human in the second and third quarters.
Yet Curry’s 45 points, coupled with the Clippers’ nearly six-minute scoring drought in the fourth quarter, could not be overcome in a 115-113 season-opening loss.
“We’re a tough team, I know my guys wouldn’t fold,” George said. “It was a good test for Game 1. We know what we got to do going forward playing these fast-paced teams. It don’t get better than them.”
The Clippers’ 98-90 lead with 10:36 to play dissolved into a 102-98 hole, and from there were forced to play catch up again. Trailing by two with three seconds to play, center Ivica Zubac intentionally missed his second free throw, and though the Clippers grabbed the offensive rebound they couldn’t get a shot before time expired.
Curry had scored seven points in the final 56 seconds of the fourth quarter to the chants of “M-V-P!” George had 29 points but did not shoot a free throw and looked frustrated much of the night when his drives yielded only blank responses from officials.
“Draymond Green got nine of them [free throws], so honestly I don’t know what he did that I wasn’t doing,” George said. “I drove the ball more than he did to the paint. Took more contact than him going to the paint. ...
“It’s just crazy. I’m getting T’d up. I’m getting hit in the face, getting smacked in the face, shot a three, got smacked in the elbow. Like, that is just crazy to me. But it’s nothing new.”
In Kawhi Leonard, their all-world defensive stopper, the Clippers once held a trump card for nights like this, when an opponent could not miss. But Leonard, who like Curry was named to the NBA’s 75th-anniversary team hours earlier Thursday, sat on the bench in a black sweatshirt. Even Nicolas Batum, a reserve forward who is another defensive comfort blanket for coach Tyronn Lue, was not on the trip, having stayed in Los Angeles for personal reasons. He is expected to be available to play Saturday, Lue said.
George scored 16 of his 22 first-half points in the second quarter to author a stunning comeback that saw the Clippers lead 67-66 at halftime. Lue spent the second quarter playing matchmaker, pairing reserves and starters together in small lineups that lacked a true center and even a true power forward because of Batum’s absence.
“Our team just finds a way to try to win games,” Lue said. “The team that we had on the floor tonight, small lineup, we haven’t played that all preseason or all practice. But like I said, those guys competed.”
Lue clapped his hands walking off the court into the tunnel at halftime. His team had trailed by 19 with 5:33 to play before the break, when nothing had appeared to work. Their switch to a zone defense had led to a Golden State three-pointer. Even when Warriors rookie Moses Moody nearly lost control of the ball dribbling into the key on two second-quarter possessions, he’d found a teammate for an assist at the last second.
But the Clippers finished the half on a 25-5 run, and if George’s offense was expected, the most promising development was the way Eric Bledsoe’s shot creation, for himself and others, continued from the preseason. His downhill attacks and veteran’s poise kept the Clippers afloat as his partner in the backcourt, Reggie Jackson, missed his first seven shots.
If not for Bledsoe, who scored 22 points, making seven of his 10 shots in the key, “I think we could have been down 30” after one quarter, Lue said.
Curry had been stifled for much of the second half, at one point missing seven consecutive shots as reserve wing Terance Mann trailed him like a shadow. Mann finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in 39 invaluable minutes.
After Curry pulled the Warriors ahead on his seventh three-pointer, this one from 31 feet with 1:54 to play, it was Bledsoe who answered with a layup for keep the Clippers in front. It was their last lead. With less than a minute to play, Curry sank a three-pointer from 26 feet, and the end was in sight.
“He didn’t miss a shot today at shootaround,” Green said. “Kinda knew it was coming.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.