The statistical record will show that the Golden State Warriors narrowly beat the Los Angeles Clippers 115-112 on Saturday night at Staples Center for a tough but impressive victory following Friday's surprising blowout at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers. The reality was much more complicated — alternately a continuation of concerns for the Clippers and a reminder that the Warriors are capable of dominating a game in multiple ways, although not without weaknesses.
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Let's start with the remarkable final few minutes. Up 115-102 with just 1:39 remaining in regulation and the Clippers starters already out, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr understandably deemed the contest won and subbed in his reserves. Everything went according to plan for the next minute, but C.J. Wilcox made a three-pointer at the 0:34 mark to cut the lead to 115-106. Brandon Rush followed with a bad pass stolen by Pablo Prigioni, who eventually made another three-pointer with 23 seconds remaining after Wesley Johnson rebounded his own miss.
The Clippers played defense for 14 seconds before forcing another turnover, after which Prigioni made another three. Now up just three points, Kerr called a timeout and put the starters back in to ice the game. They couldn't hold onto the ball either. Wilcox ended up with the ball but missed an off-balance heave that would have forced overtime.
It was easy to tell he hadn't been in that position very often, because the Clippers had a timeout available to stop the clock and set up a potentially better shot. It would have been unlikely regardless, but the same can be said of the preceding comeback.
The Warriors can at least take solace in knowing that players like Kevon Looney, Jason Thompson, and Ian Clark will not factor much into their ability to repeat as champions. Those who will offered plenty of reasons for confidence vs. the rival Clippers, particularly given the challenges set by several key absences. With starting center Andrew Bogut out due to right Achilles soreness, Golden State was left without a serviceable center and opted to start Draymond Green at the position as part of an ultra-small lineup. DeAndre Jordan took advantage of the size mismatch to finish with 16 points and 21 rebounds (including seven at the offensive end), but he looked against Green on several post-ups and shot 7-of-13 from the field, below his league-leading average.
For that matter, Green made up for whatever he gave up on defense by controlling the game at the other end. His 18 points (9-of-14 FG), 11 assists, and 10 rebounds add up to his league-leading 11th triple-double of 2015-16, a remarkable achievement after tallying just one in his first three seasons.
Green spearheaded an attack that created open looks against the Clippers on a night when Stephen Curry (5-of-15 FG and 3-of-8 3FG) did not make his usual stunning array of shots. The Warriors shot 52.1 percent from the field largely by seeking out the best available shots. Klay Thompson had a big night with 32 points (11-of-22 FG), but this was a team effort. Only Curry and Andre Iguodala (4-of-9 FG) failed to make at least half their attempts.
Perhaps most importantly, the defense was significantly improved after surrendering 137 points to the Blazers, including 51 for Damian Lillard, on Friday. The Clippers shot an unremarkable 44.7 percent from the field with solid but unremarkable outings for J.J. Redick (16 points on 6-of-11 FG), Jamal Crawford (25 points on 7-of-18 FG), and the previously red-hot Chris Paul (24 points on 10-of-19 FG and six assists). L.A. also got very little production from the wing, a veritable death sentence when facing Golden State. Starter Paul Pierce went for a paltry two points on 1-of-7 shooting in 16 minutes, and new addition Jeff Green put up only five points on 2-of-7 shooting in his Clippers debut.
Those performances stand out as problematic for the Clippers because they follow recent trends. While it's hard to knock them too much when playing without Blake Griffin against one of the quickest lineups in the league, the Clippers have looked too slow with he and Jordan playing together against the Warriors. Furthermore, they lack the required wing depth to sit one of that duo and attempt to go small for any length of time at all. That's a big issue for a No. 4 seed likely to see Golden State in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Even so, there's no shame in looking ill-equipped to match up with a team that just raised its record to 49-5. That win total puts the Warriors even with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls through 54 games, and Saturday's road win showed yet again why it's reasonable to believe they can match or exceed 72 wins. Friday's loss to Portland was concerning, but the Warriors returned on the second night of a road back-to-back and beat another playoff-caliber opponent. No team has ever avoided losing two games in a row over a full season, but the Warriors look capable of becoming the first. They adjust to both opponents and their own failings as well as any group in recent memory.
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