We could talk all day long about the everlasting debate over competitive balance in the NBA, but perhaps the biggest challenge the Golden State Warriors pose for many die-hard NBA fans is the issue of sleep.
Because they play on the West Coast, the two-time defending champions are often playing late at night, leaving East Coasters and even Midwesterners with a choice of whether to stay up and watch the action or to get some shut eye before work the next morning. Some play it by ear and call it a night only if and when Golden State builds a commanding, early second-half lead.
This was basically the scenario on Monday night: The Warriors went up by 31, 94-63, at home on the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Clippers, the biggest first-round underdogs in 30 years, midway through the third quarter.1 Yet those who cut off their TV at that point, or before, missed out on the biggest comeback — or collapse, depending on how you view it — in NBA playoff history.
The Clippers poured in 85 second-half points en route to an improbable 135-131 win, knotting the best-of-seven at one game apiece as the series heads to Los Angeles later this week.
There’s no need to concoct an over-complicated explanation for the comeback. While there wasn’t an immediate effect, Stephen Curry’s fourth foul prompted coach Steve Kerr to sit the scorching sharpshooter (who had 22 points and was 6-of-9 from the field) for an eight-and-a-half-minute stretch during the third quarter, until there were 13 seconds left in the period. By that point, the Warriors’ lead (still 17 points) had already been cut by almost half. And Curry’s magic had largely faded once he was subbed back in: Upon returning, he shot just 2-of-9 the rest of the way.
Fellow star Kevin Durant was efficient as a scorer but turned the ball over four separate times during that third quarter alone. He would finish with a team-high nine giveaways, and the club — whose problematic turnovers we’ve detailed here before — had 22 turnovers on the night. (It marked the second game in a row that Golden State has had more than 20.) Durant again got frustrated with Clippers irritant Patrick Beverley, who stands about 10 inches shorter, never stops giving everything he has and seems to effectively get into the All-Star’s head.
Lastly, the Warrior defense allowed Lou Williams, the Clippers’ top scorer, to get rolling and simply couldn’t find a way to stop him late. From the point that L.A.’s deficit peaked at 31 points, Williams, the likely Sixth Man of the Year, shot 11-of-17 for 26 points while also dishing out seven assists over the final 19 minutes of the game. He even grabbed a pair of his own misses and put them each back for valuable buckets.2
“We stopped playing, and got kind of disconnected, in that mid-third quarter,” Kerr told reporters of the turnaround. “We lost our defensive edge.”
It’s been tempting not to even bother writing about the key factors in this series, largely because of how enormous an underdog the Clippers are. But one thing the Warriors would have wanted to avoid going in was this: Don’t allow Los Angeles to stay in the game late. The win marked the third time this season alone that the Clippers had come back from 25 or more down on the road to win,3 and they were the NBA’s most efficient team in late-game, clutch scenarios during the regular season. With the score separated by 5 points or fewer in the final five minutes of play, L.A. outscored opponents by a league-high 17.7 points per 100 possessions.
The clutch shooting of Williams will stand out, but he was far from alone. The Clippers shot 8-of-14 from deep as a team in the second half. Montrezl Harrell, Williams’s high-flying pick-and-roll partner, shot 5-of-5 for 17 points after L.A. fell behind by 31. Beverley made a key play, picking Curry’s pocket as he brought the ball up the court early in the fourth, as if to say that the Clippers weren’t simply going to lie down, despite the Warriors still holding a double-digit lead.
And in what’s marked a sea change under coach Doc Rivers, a couple of the team’s youngsters — a contingent that just a few years ago never would have gotten an opportunity to show what they can do — pulled off arguably the biggest play of the game. Williams got a screen at the top of the key from rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who then short-rolled before hitting fellow rookie Landry Shamet on the wing for the go-ahead triple.
Still, the stunning comeback likely doesn’t figure to change all that much concerning this series, given the massive gap in talent. Yes, the Warriors lost center DeMarcus Cousins to what may be another significant injury, something that could throw them out of rhythm now that the playoffs are underway. Their chances of winning the NBA title — while still better than anyone else’s — are down significantly as a result.4 But the reality is that the Warriors still have a number of other All-Stars to lean on, while the Clippers have none.
It may end up being nothing more than a single, historic comeback in what amounts to a five-game series victory for Golden State. But even if that’s all, the outcome may have been enough to prompt some sleepy fans to catch the final quarter the next time they’re weighing whether to get that extra half-hour of rest.
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