If nothing else, the Los Angeles Clippers proved that the Golden State Warriors are not invincible. Down 97-87 to the rival Clips with 7:56 on the clock in Wednesday night's game at Oracle Arena, the defending champions faced their first serious challenge of the 2015-16 season. Remaining undefeated would require besting a fellow title contender that had managed to find a higher level over the previous 40 minutes.
The final stretch answered any questions about the Warriors' ability to win on nights when they don't play their best game. Terrific individual performances from Harrison Barnes and the red-hot Stephen Curry and quality team defense from the same small lineup that dominated June's NBA Finals allowed Golden State to come up with a hard-fought and well-earned 112-108 victory to join the Toronto Raptors as the league's only two 5-0 teams.
Golden State's late-game success started with big shots by Barnes, who showed why he decided to turn down $64 million before cutting off contract extension talks last week. The fourth-year wing scored on four consecutive possessions over roughly 95 seconds to complete a personal 10-1 run that erased any momentum the Clippers had seemed to have held.
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He then gave way to Curry, who capped an otherwise average night by scoring 13 consecutive Warriors points on three three-pointers, a very long two, and two late free throws. Klay Thompson hit Golden State's last two freebies to ice the victory, but it was Curry who took over in crunch time to finish with 31 points (7-of-11 3FG). He has now scored at least 30 in four of five tries this season.
Meanwhile, the Clippers only managed 13 points after Curry's re-introduction at the 8:18 mark, struggling to get consistent looks against the Warriors' swarming, switching defense. Perhaps not coincidentally, Golden State finished the game playing Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Barnes, and Draymond Green, with Barnes checking Blake Griffin and Green taking DeAndre Jordan in apparent mismatches. Jordan managed several offensive rebounds against the shorter opposition, but the Clippers often looked uncomfortable executing their offense and found themselves forced to rely on late-clock looks from Austin Rivers — playing ahead of Pierce in a surprising move from father Doc — with alarming regularity.
However, the Clippers arguably should have tied the game within the final 30 seconds when Griffin cut to the lane off a defensive switch for what seemed to be an open dunk. Paul did not see him, though, and his subsequent missed three-pointer over Green handed the Warriors their chance to end the game by making free throws.
It would be easy to highlight those late-game failures as the story of the Clippers' night, but the fact is that they more regularly showed why so many people have tabbed them as the Warriors' closest competition for the conference title this spring. Paul was excellent for most of his 31 minutes (24 points on 9-of-15 FG, nine assists, three steals; Griffin looked like the do-everything star who dominated entire games last postseason (23 points, 10 boards, six assists); and role players like J.J. Redick, Lance Stephenson, and the much-maligned Rivers indicated that those stars should have more help when it's needed most. The Clippers came into this game at an impressive 4-0 and didn't look especially lacking.
Expect similar nights from many capable Warriors opponents this season. This tight result may table discussions of their ability to win 70 games, but it won't change many opinions of the team's quality. Golden State just took a shot from one of the best teams in the NBA and stayed undefeated. As Stephen Curry said in a post-game interview with ESPN's J.A. Adande, they're even better than they were last year.
The Warriors won't play another likely title contender until they face the Clippers again on November 19 at Staples Center. You should probably start setting up your viewing plans right now.
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