It takes a lot more than one overwhelming quarter and a late double-digit lead to beat the Golden State Warriors. The Los Angeles Clippers learned as much in a thrilling contest at Staples Center on Thursday night.
Down 16 points after one quarter, 23 early in the second, and 10 with five minutes left in regulation, the Warriors finished the game on a 22-5 run to complete an amazing comeback over their Pacific Division rivals for a 124-117 win. They're now 13-0 and two wins away from tying the NBA record for the best start to a year. The 23-point comeback is the largest in the league so far this season.
It's difficult to say that it was an unlikely win for the Warriors, because they have played at a high-enough level over this past month that no early deficit seems insurmountable. But things absolutely started poorly for Golden State as L.A. took firm control with a scintillating first quarter. The Clippers shot 17-of-24 (70.8 percent) from the field and 5-of-6 from beyond the arc for 41 points while committing no turnovers in the process.
Blake Griffin starred with 12 points on 10 shots, but it was Chris Paul who took over in his first game since the team's loss at the Dallas Mavericks last Wednesday. Whether Paul was really iffy to play with his sore groin is an open question, but he looked to suffer no ill effects from the injury by hitting his first seven shots for 18 first-quarter points. He also added four assists as the Clippers took a 41-25 lead after 12 minutes. It was on balance an excellent game for Paul, who finished with 35 points (13-of-22 FG, 5-of-9 3FG), eight assists, and four steals.
The Clippers built the lead up to 23 with a 9-2 start to the second quarter, at which point the game would have seemed over against virtually any other team. But everyone knows that the Warriors are not every other team, and this stat proves it:
The comeback did not occur all at once, but several factors allowed the Warriors to gain a foothold in the second quarter. First, a run of whistles saw Golden State slow down the tempo and gain greater control over the flow of the game — a rare necessity for a team used to playing so fast. That process became easier with the reintroduction of Stephen Curry, who was forced to the bench early due to foul trouble. The Clippers still led 68-54 at the half, but the margin seemed manageable for a Warriors group prone to going on big runs.
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Golden State took the third quarter 31-23 in an impressive showing, but that just proved to be prelude to an incredible fourth quarter. Harrison Barnes scored eight of the Warriors' first 10 points of the period to cut the lead to 96-95 with all of 9:48 remaining, at which point a Warriors win seemed a foregone conclusion. Yet the Clippers took advantage of several turnovers — the Warriors had 19 on the night, with many turning into easy buckets in transition — and got big shots from Paul and others to make the score 112-102 with just 5:02 remaining. The Clippers absorbed a major comeback attempt from the Warriors and seemed to come out on the other side in good shape. That's something that teams have not been able to say much over the past 13 months.
The problem for L.A. is that their opponents had a more impressive run in them. The Warriors ended the night on a 22-5 run that saw the Clippers miss nine of 10 attempts before a meaningless layup with five seconds to go. A team that looked to have re-exerted control instead lost by a comfortable-seeming seven-point margin.
The big story is not the Clippers' late collapse so much as one of the most impressive fourth-quarter shooting displays in some time. The Warriors shot 11-of-15 (73.3 percent) from the field, 8-of-9 from beyond the arc, and 9-of-10 from the line in the period for a hyper-efficient 39 points. The shot chart shows a glut of three-pointers and point-blank looks — pretty much the ideal setup for an offense:
Naturally, that performance involved a great showing from Curry, who hit three triples in the quarter to finish with 40 points (11-of-22 FG, 6-of-14 3FG), 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and an NBA record with four-straight games of 30 points and five three-pointers. But this was absolutely a five-man effort for what's quickly become the most feared lineup in the league. The small-ball group that features Curry, Klay Thompson (who had his best game of the season), Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and the utterly essential Draymond Green continues to confound opponents that feature very different strengths and superstars. No team has been able to solve it.
It's easy to ask questions of the Clippers in the aftermath of this game. Why does the offense get fairly one-dimensional in crunch time? Why is the defense so liable to blow leads late? Why does Griffin take on less of a role in the final few minutes? Perhaps the answers to these questions are fairly easy as they apply to Thursday's loss, because the Warriors played at a level that few teams could possibly match. After all, the Clippers built the lead back up to double digits when the defending champions appeared to have seized control. It's not as if they capitulated at the first opportunity.
Thirteen wins with no losses have shown that the Warriors have gears that other teams do not. Maybe other contenders and the challenges of an 82-game season will help to close the gap in the coming months. For now, though, they're the best team in the league. And it's not especially close.
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