In two January losses to the Golden State Warriors last season, the Los Angeles Clippers watched Stephen Curry score absurd numbers of points on absurd shooting. To the tune of 28 points on 14 shots in one game (an effective field goal percentage of .857 in that one) and 31 points on 16 shots (eFG% .875) in the other. I had come to believe at that point that it mattered not at all what the Clippers did -- if Curry was having that sort of night, there was no way to beat the Warriors.
Well, at STAPLES Center tonight, Curry scored 38 points on 23 shots (eFG% .804) -- and the Clippers still won. (A quick aside about Curry -- unlike the other great scorers in the league, he does not get to the free throw line much. He always avoids contact, never seeks it. He took one free throw in this game -- when he was fouled making a three pointer. So when I say 38 points on 23 shots, I mean 38 freaking points on 23 freaking shots; no 24 free throws added in there like Kevin Durant Wednesday, or 17 like Chris Paul tonight. 38 points on 23 shots is flat out ridiculous.)
So for those of you keeping track at home, that's three games in the last four times he's faced the Clippers that Curry has shot an eFG% over .800.
How did the Clippers win? The simple answer is that they outscored the Warriors with a high-powered offensive display of their own, but there are complexities involved as well.
The way the Clippers defended the Warriors tonight for me illustrates perfectly the vast difference between Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson. Thompson is a great shooter in his own right -- but Curry is in a different category. The Clippers, for the most part, executed their game plan of running the Warriors off the three point line. They stayed home on Curry and Thompson, showed on pick-and-roll defense while the defender fought over the top, and mostly held the coverage until the primary defender was back (there were a few lapses). Thompson had scored 38 points the night before against the Lakers, taking 19 shots and hitting 5-7 threes. In this game he took seven shots total, and only two three pointers. You know that coming off a career night, Thompson was looking to get some shots up -- but the Clippers never left him open.
And that's the difference between Thompson and Curry. If you don't leave Thompson open, you can hold him to 10 points on 3-7 shooting. If you don't leave Curry open, he can still burn you for 38 points on 23 shots and drain nine three pointers. Yes, there were a couple of lapses where the defense lost him. But consider also these four among the three pointers he made (and I'm just going off the top of my head):
- at 6:33 of the 2nd quarter, in transition with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, he pulled up off the dribble four steps behind the three point line with Jared Dudley's hand in his face.
- at 8:26 of the third, with the Warriors inbounding with a full shot clock, he did a catch and shoot from the S in the STAPLES Center logo 30-some feet from the basket -- he shot so quickly that the TNT cameras did not realize that we were back to live action.
- at 10:03 of the fourth, Andrew Bogut set a screen above the three point arc, Paul went over the top and DeAndre Jordan showed just like the Clippers planned -- and he pulled up over a strong challenge from the seven foot Jordan.
- at 6:05 of the fourth, on a 3 on 1 fast break with two teammates alone under the basket, he pulled up behind the arc with Jared Dudley close enough to foul him -- and still made the shot.
I know from his overall statistics that he is not as good as he has been in the sample size of games I've seen him play recently against the Clippers. (Or maybe he will be that good this season.) But this dude is absolutely mind-blowing. He is the closest thing to actually unstoppable, as in you can not stop him from scoring no matter what you do, I've ever seen.
Having said all that, the Clippers defense on him did kind of work in a way. In addition to his 38 points, Curry also committed 11 turnovers -- he was just one assist away from a triple double that you don't really want. The Clippers placed a lot of emphasis on Curry, trying to get the ball our of his hands, and with that focus they came up with a lot of steals and deflections. It also resulted in some easy looks for David Lee (22 points) and a whole bunch of 2-on-1 type situations below the foul line as Lee rolled while Blake Griffin was showing hard on a screen 30 feet away from the basket. Normally you don't do that so far from the hoop, but there are different rules for Curry. Jordan and the rotating Clippers defense was a bit of a mixed bag in these situations -- but it was still preferable to Curry taking the shot.
As great as Curry was, Chris Paul was arguably even better. After a 15 point performance against the Lakers in Tuesday night's loss, hr exploded for 42 points on 12-20 from the field and 16-17 from the line. He also had 15 assists and six steals. It was the first 40 point, 10 assist game of his career. When you add in three three pointers and one and-on that came from his assists, Paul accounted for 76 points in the game. Wow.
Paul's points were far less spectacular than Curry's -- for the most part he was able to evade the defense and get relatively easy shots for himself. (The lobs that led to dunks were plenty spectacular, but more on that in a minute.) It was his highest scoring game as a Clipper (his previous LAC high was 36) and one shy of his career high.
The Clippers also got solid performances from the rest of their starters and off the bench from Jamal Crawford. Blake Griffin finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds making 9 of 12 shots, J.J. Redick scored 17 and made three threes including a fourth quarter dagger, Crawford also had 17, Jared Dudley was the fifth Clipper in double figures with 10 and Jordan finished with nine points and 17 rebounds, including 10 offensive boards, tying his career high.
Importantly, after being destroyed on the glass on Tuesday in the loss to the Lakers, the Clippers built an 11 rebound advantage against the Warriors. They also forced 24 turnovers.
The Clippers essentially put the game away in two separate runs, 20-7 late in the second quarter and 9-0 in the middle of the third. That third quarter run included not one, not two, but three straight Clipper steals that led directly to CP3-to-Griffin lob dunks in a span of about 40 seconds. Here's the play-by-play from NBA.com for that sequence:
05:07 Curry Turnover : Bad Pass (7 TO) Steal:Griffin (2 ST)
05:03 Griffin Alley Oop Dunk Shot: Made (16 PTS) Assist: Paul (10 AST)
04:49 Curry Turnover : Lost Ball (8 TO) Steal:Paul (4 ST)
04:46 Griffin Alley Oop Dunk Shot: Made (18 PTS) Assist: Paul (11 AST)
04:35 Douglas Turnover : Bad Pass (1 TO) Steal:Paul (5 ST)
04:31 Griffin Alley Oop Dunk Shot: Made (20 PTS) Assist: Paul (12 AST)
The Warriors literally never got the all inside the three point circle during those three possessions -- so that was fun. The Clippers lead was 19 by the third dunk and the rest of the way the Warriors could only get as close as eight (on Curry's four point play) but no closer.
The rest of the Clippers bench aside from Crawford scored just eight points on 2-13 shooting -- which is a problem -- but they'll come around. Matt Barnes certainly isn't sharp with the ball in his hands right now, and Darren Collison didn't get a lot of chances tonight because of Paul's brilliance, but those guys will be fine. The reserve bigs remain a massive problem -- though I have to say that I saw some things I liked out of Byron Mullens in nine minutes, despite his 0-4 shooting display (all three pointers, by the way).
The Clippers have given up 116 points and 115 points in their two games, so if Doc Rivers is going to define this team by defense, he's still got some work to do. But having said that, the team withstood an onslaught from a scorching hot player tonight and still came away with a win. They're now 1-1, and while they don't like losing the Lakers (and of course they'd rather be 2-0) if you're going to split those two games, you'd rather beat the Dubs, since they're the ones that are going to be there at the end of the season.
Most of all, it was another wildly entertaining game between these two teams. I have a feeling we're in for at least three more of them before this season is over.