In spite of a valiant, gritty effort, the Los Angeles Clippers fell at the hands of the Golden State Warriors 112-108 in Oakland on Wednesday night. Even with the loss, there were plenty of reasons to remain plenty optimistic about the Clippers following this game. But, in light of the first defeat of the season, let's start this thing off with the bad from this game.
This is a point that has been harped upon endlessly in the GameThreads so far this season, but Jamal Crawford has been extraordinarily bad on both ends of the floor. The only reason he's ever in games to begin with is to provide an offensive spark, but he's been very much the opposite of such a thing. Crawford was on the court for 20 minutes in this one, and finished with eight points on 4-15 shooting, including 0-3 from deep. Through the year's first five games, the 35-year-old is shooting an abysmal 37% from the field, and has connected on three of his 16 attempts from three-point range.
The offense completely grinds to a halt whenever he touches the ball, and the possession almost invariably concludes with a low-percentage, forced shot after a few dribbles. When you combine the bad offense with the somehow-even-worse defense, you come up with a player that shouldn't be sniffing the rotation at this point. Jamal hit a couple of important buckets in this game, yes, but he was far more harmful to the Clipper cause on the whole. He doubled Wesley Johnson's playing time tonight, for some reason.
Of course, this one falls right into the lap of Doc Rivers. He's the one deciding to give Crawford such a large role, despite the obvious decline in the player's productivity. This was just a poor night for Doc all around. The Clippers had a chance to put some distance between themselves and the Warriors early in the first quarter after Stephen Curry had to leave less than three minutes in with foul trouble. LAC built a 23-19 lead with just over four minutes to go in the frame, but then the parade of reserves entered. The Clips would muster a grand total of two points for the remainder of the quarter with a lineup consisting primarily of bench guys, while the Warriors finished the frame on a commanding 12-2 run.
Doc acknowledged the awful play of his bench during ESPN's between-quarter interview, only to keep the same five-man crew out there to begin the second. Curry returned to the game at this point, and all hell was on the verge of breaking loose for the Clippers. By the time we hit the eight-minute mark of the second, Golden State had suddenly built a 17-point lead at 46-29. Curry managed to score nine points almost consecutively during this time, which could've easily spelled doom for L.A.
But, much to the Clippers' credit, they weren't going to be done-in so easily. The full complement of starters returned, and they were able to fight their way back into it. The bench had amassed just six points from the 4:18 mark of the first until the 7:33 mark of the second. From the 7:33 mark until the end of the half, however, the group consisting primarily of Clipper starters outscored the Warriors 23-16. Los Angeles was trailing 63-56 at the break, but they had temporarily weathered the storm and gotten back to within striking distance.
From the jump, Chris Paul was the driving force for the Clippers. He was aggressively attacking the basket and forcing the action, which is a major reason Curry found himself in early foul trouble. We're used to CP3 letting the game come to him and getting his teammates involved before getting his own offense going, but Paul took a different approach in this game. He had 20 points by halftime, which was already more than he'd scored in any of the season's first four games. CP3 simply wasn't going to let his team get embarrassed in the way so many teams are when they visit ORACLE.
Unfortunately, the second half was a different story for Chris. He committed a foul on Curry with over eight minutes left in the third, his fourth personal of the game. Naturally, this forced him to the bench for the duration of the quarter. To the surprise of many, though, this was far from the worst thing that happened to the Clips in this game. Austin Rivers came in and performed quite admirably, particularly on defense. The third quarter was completely dominated by the Clippers on both ends. They were flying over Golden State's screens and hurrying them into difficult looks. The shots that had been falling for the Warriors in the second were clanging off the rim in the third. Curry was particularly cold, finishing the quarter 0-5 from the floor for just two points. Rivers did a great job in limiting his airspace. They wound up getting burned a few times (if for no other reason than it seems every Warrior is a stellar passer), but sending an early double at Steph and forcing him to pass the ball generally seemed to produce a favorable result for L.A.
Offensively, it was the play of Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick that kept the Clips afloat. Griffin was particularly dazzling following a fairly quiet first half, and the offense was running through him with CP3 glued to the bench. The Clippers were quick on the counterattack following a series of Warriors bricks, which proved advantageous. As is the case with every team, it's obviously easier to attack and exploit Golden State when they're unable to get their defense completely set. The ball was moving crisply and the Clippers were hitting the open shots they were generating. LAC was completely dictating the style of play on both ends, which had thrown the Dubs out of rhythm and had completely silenced the normally-raucous ORACLE crowd. Win-win. Golden State scored just 19 points in the third, and the Clippers held an 83-82 lead heading into the fourth.
Unfortunately, Doc Rivers can't keep the starters out there for the entire game. At some point, they've got to rest. As a result, the Clippers began the fourth with the Rivers-Crawford-Johnson-Pierce-Smith lineup that had performed so miserably earlier in the game. Fortunately, though, this is where Chris Paul's foul trouble actually proved semi-useful. Doc was able to run Paul back out there (fresh legs and all!) with over nine minutes to go, and the first two possessions resulted in three-pointers for Johnson and Smith. When Josh Smith is drilling transition three-pointers, you know things are going well. Smoove's triple gave Los Angeles a fairly sizable 95-87 lead with about eight minutes left. It was at this point that the Warriors starters returned. And it was at this point that Doc Rivers truly lost the game.
Doc stuck with his group of four reserves and CP3 despite the likes of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green returning to the game. Paul is able to help prop-up a lineup like this on offense, but there's very little he's able to do to plug the gaping holes on defense. The Dubs, in the way they so often do, opened the floodgates. Of all the weapons out there, it was actually Harrison Barnes that did the heavy lifting that got Golden State back into it. Barnes poured-in 10 consecutive points in the span of just over one minute, with the only Clipper tally during that time coming on a Pierce free throw. All four of Barnes' baskets in this time were the result of some sort of epic defensive meltdown. Players were losing him in transition, failing to switch properly and failing to close-out in time. This surge cut the Clips' lead down to three before Rivers finally decided to reinsert Griffin and Jordan.
But really, it was too late. The crowd had been whipped back into a frenzy, and the Clippers were powerless to prevent a subsequent ridiculous barrage of Curry triples. Steph scored 13 points in the final six minutes of the game, including a trio of threes from impossible distances. Impossible for anybody but him, at least. On the other end, Griffin was unable to rediscover his offensive groove after having sat for so long, while Paul struggled to find his legs after having had to chase Curry all over the floor.
Despite all that was going wrong, though, the Clippers still had plenty of opportunities. Unfortunately, they couldn't hit a free-throw down-the-stretch. They were just 3-8 from the charity stripe in the fourth, with CP3 and Pierce combining to go 2-6. Leaving points on the board against a team like the Warriors is always going to come back to kill you, and that's exactly what happened to the Clippers. When Steph Curry is hitting his standard crazy shots and you're blowing free throws, there isn't much you can do to overcome it. Curry finished with a game-high 31 points on 8-17 shooting from the floor and 7-11 from beyond-the-arc. He just doesn't miss shots. At this point there really doesn't seem to be a way to defend him. Just hope the shots don't go in.
It's unfair to pin a loss completely on one or two people, but it's hard to shake the feeling that Doc Rivers is largely culpable for this result. Sticking with ineffective lineups for too long. Doing a poor job of staggering lineups to include one or two starters along with reserves. Completely abandoning Lance Stephenson, who once again played solid defense, late in the game for the aforementioned Jamal Crawford disaster.
To add (literal) injury to insult, Chris Paul had to exit the game prior to the final play because of a groin injury, according to Dan Woike of the OC Register. Woike reports that it's officially a strained groin, and that Paul will be reevaluated Thursday. However, CP3 said he intends to play in the Clips' next game on Saturday. Additionally, Griffin took a knock to the knee in the first half. Woike says he should be fine, but that Griffin will have to manage swelling in the meantime.
Seeing the Clippers fight back in a game they could've easily mailed-in after an early 17-point deficit was an excellent sign. There have been plenty of questions surrounding the mental toughness of this team for several years, particularly after last season's epic playoff collapse. To show the kind of resilience in a tough environment speaks to the true quality of this team. It's going to take time for the new pieces to gel and (hopefully) for Doc to figure out which combinations actually work. The talent here is unquestionably superior to what it was a year ago, and the performance tonight should be an encouraging sign in the long-term.
The Warriors are the class of the NBA at the moment, but it's clear that the Clippers aren't far behind. L.A. will get the opportunity to exact a little revenge when the Dubs come to Staples Center on November 19th. Speaking of revenge, LAC's next game will be Saturday at home against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Ready for more fireworks?