The Los Angeles Clippers victory over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night was a big win, make no mistake. The Clippers, still playing without two of their top four scorers, faced a Warriors team that had won five in a row and fancies itself a real threat in the Western Conference. Despite the missing firepower and despite the fact that the starting backcourt of Chris Paul and Darren Collison was a combined 3-15 midway deep into the third quarter, the Clippers were able to come up with a big win.
The Clippers have been a powerful offensive team this season, and it's fair to say that their offense defines them more than their defense. But the 42-22 Clippers run over the final 17 minutes of the game was all about great defense.
The run began when Mark Jackson went to his bench. Golden State's second unit is better now than it was to begin the season, but it's still not very strong, and it was a disaster Wednesday night. The unit of Steve Blake, Jordan Crawford, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Jermaine O'Neal was on the floor, more or less as a complete unit, for almost nine minutes of game time. During that stretch they were a collective 1-8 from the field, with the one field goal being an uncontested layup after a turnover, though they did manage to make six free throws.
With the Clippers defense energized by their success against the second unit and momentum on their side, they continued to stifle the Warriors even after the starters returned. The key adjustment by Doc Rivers was to place Paul (6'0) on Klay Thompson (6'7). Thompson had 21 points through three quarters, taking advantage of the similarly diminutive Collison in the post at the outset of the game. He had five points on one three pointer and two free throws in the final period.
This was not simply a case of the Warriors missing shots. There's a reason Steve Blake was 0-6 in the game -- he took six very difficult shots. In the crucial nine minute stretch that turned the game, Blake found himself time and again with the ball in his hands and the shot clock nearing zero. On at least three occasions Blake forced a long three against a short clock -- not a recipe for success.
The truth is, as they were on their 42-22 run, the Clippers offense continued to struggle. Yes, Matt Barnes, Willie Green and even Paul each hit timely threes, but Paul had two ugly turnovers pushing the ball, while Collison missed some wide open opportunities and Danny Granger (who made his first six shots in the first half) tossed up a couple of air balls.
But on defense, they came up with four steals and limited the Warriors to one shot, usually a highly contested one. There were a couple of breakdowns of course -- at one point Granger got hopelessly lost when Griffin switched a ball screen but Granger decided not to switch, leaving the rest of the team playing 3 vs. 5 and on another occasion Paul recovered to Andre Iguodala in the corner leaving Thompson alone at the three point line, a definite mistake given their respective percentage from beyond the arc -- but on the whole the defensive execution was as good as it's been all season, which is why the Clippers were able to win going away even as their offense remained less than overwhelming.
Once Paul and Collison finally began finding the range, the game was over. Combined with the excellent defense, the Clippers overwhelmed the Warriors on their way to a comfortable win.
As I said it was a good win, and one the Clippers can build on as they point towards the postseason. The offense remains potent, and will be even more so when Crawford and/or Redick returns. Paul is still dealing with a variety of injuries, from the separated shoulder to the sprained thumb to the sore groin muscle, and he is not yet back to full strength. With Granger looking like a major new weapon, the team should have plenty of scorers in the postseason.
But the defense they played over the final 17 minutes is the piece of the puzzle that has been missing most of the season. Was that just a fleeting glimpse, or evidence of a team that is turning a corner? Time will tell, but if they defend like that there's no telling how far they can go in the playoffs.