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Anatomy to a Legendary Win: How the Clippers Pulled off the Greatest Comeback in NBA History

The Clippers made magic happen last night in their 31 point comeback against the Warriors at Oracle. Here’s how they did it.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers just pulled off the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history, winning 135-131 after being down 31 points in the 3rd quarter. Doing so against any team would have been impressive. Doing so in the playoffs makes it more so. Against the Warriors? Against the Warriors in Oracle? We all just witnessed one of the most amazing games in NBA history. But how exactly did the Clippers do it? There were five key elements to the Clippers’ second half success — and none of them would have been enough on their own.

1. Find an offensive option that worked: the Lou-Trez pick and roll

For all the talk of the Warriors’ unstoppable offense, what was really missing from the first six quarters of this series was the Clippers’ offense. While nowhere near the historic firepower of the Warriors, the Clippers had the 9th best offense in the NBA this season – yet barely cracked 100 points in Game 1, and put up a mere 50 in the first half of Game 2. All their usual pet plays were not working. Shamet could not get open, as Klay Thompson’s intense defense and length wore on him. Danilo Gallinari looked hesitant attacking the basket, warded off by the size and defensive acumen of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant. Even on mismatches, Gallo settled for stepback jumpers rather than punishing Steph Curry or Klay in the post. Nothing was going right, except for one thing: the fabled, legendary, balletic Lou WilliamsMontrezl Harrell pick and roll.

In the 2nd half of Game 2, the Clippers ran the Lou-Trez pick and roll almost every trip down the court, or so it felt. The abandoned the mismatch basketball and the myriad of off-ball screens for Shamet, instead focusing on their one, best option. And the Warriors couldn’t stop it. Lou got to the basket, he glided into his favorite shot at the elbow fading left, and he passed. Oh boy did Lou Williams pass. Lou zinged 11 assists, and half of them were gorgeous feeds off Warriors’ traps to whoever was rolling, whether it be Trez or JaMychal Green or Danilo Gallinari. He didn’t force things, even though he was scorching hot (12-18 from the field in the second half). It was one of the best games of a decorated, storied, underappreciated career, and Lou’s passing was matched only by Trez’s finishing inside. While the Clippers will need to get other guys going, and while the Warriors will definitely make adjustments to slow Lou and Trez, Klay Thompson’s quote after the game (when asked about what the Warriors need to do better on Lou) rings true: “I don’t know (with a shrug). Try and stop him from making shots.” Good offense will always beat good defense, and last night, the Lou-Trez pick and roll was about as good as offense can be.

2. Up the defensive intensity

The Clippers’ defense was fine through the first six quarters, even though they gave up 121 points in Game 1 and 73 points in the first half of Game 2. Their scheme (leaving guys like Draymond, Iguodala, and DeMarcus Cousins wide open from three) seemed to be working, just the execution was lacking at times. The effort was almost always there — again, good offense beats good defense — but the Clippers couldn’t hit that next-level intensity, and couldn’t find quite the right matchups.

In the second half of Game 2, they found those things. Patrick Beverley did not stop clapping and battling against Kevin Durant. He forced a number of Warriors’ turnovers, and kept talking to and encouraging his teammates. Landry Shamet locked in on Steph Curry, playing some of the best defense of his young career. He stuck with Curry through the usual morass of off-ball screens, and hung tight with him when defending in isolation. The Clippers rotated hard and smart when the Warriors got an advantage, forcing scrambles offensively, which in turn led to turnovers. Most importantly, outside of a brief flurry to start the 4th quarter, they did not give up offensive rebounds, instead rebounding by committee and boxing out their man. The Warriors definitely missed some open shots, but that’s basketball. The Clippers played great defense, and found some matchups which they can turn to in games to come.

3. Convert in transition

Before the game, Doc Rivers specifically mentioned that something the Clippers needed to improve on was pace, and scoring in transition. Early on, there was none of that. The Clippers were outscored 13-2 in transition in the 1st quarter, and 17-5 in the first half. While the Warriors did finish with an incredible 32 fastbreak points (courtesy of 22 Clippers’ turnovers), the Clippers made huge strides in the second half, ending up with 18 points in transition of their own. They did so primarily by forcing turnovers (Beverley, as well as Shai’s help defense), but also by pushing the pace better and smarter off of missed shots and even makes. The Warriors’ halfcourt defense, when it locks in, is really good, so the Clippers need to capitalize as much as possible when their defense is not set up yet. In the second half last night, they did just that. Of course, you need to get stops and force turnovers to really score in transition, but for the first six quarters of the series, the Clippers couldn’t get buckets even after turnovers, and it was one of the primary reasons that their offense lagged. That all changed last night.

4. Trust in teammates, and play unselfishly

Doc Rivers has shown trust in his rookies and young players all season. Because he’s empowered them, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet have received lots of reps in big games, and have earned the trust of their teammates. Last night, that all paid off. On the most important possession of the game, Lou ran a pick-and-roll with Shai to get switched onto Steph Curry. When the Warriors tried to switch and then recover, Shai was open on the short roll, and Lou found him. This is a seasoned veteran, one of the most clutch players in the NBA, and a scorer who was on fire taking the ball out of his hands on the potential deciding possession of the game to give the ball to a rookie. Shai got it, and drove towards the basket. But rather than pulling up for a tough midranger, or taking it into the teeth of the paint, Shai got just far enough to draw Iguodala off Landry Shamet, then swung it to his fellow rookie, who buried the shot. Both rookies appeared calm in the biggest moment of their basketball careers thus far, and made the correct basketball plays without hesitation.

The trust the Clippers showed in Landry and Shai there was also apparent in the rest of their decisions all night. Whether it was Trez passing out of the paint to Gallo for an and-one, Beverley getting the ball to Gallo in transition to get him going after a mostly rough outing offensively, or Lou consistently making the right reads in pick and roll coverage, the second-half Clippers showed the utmost faith in their teammates to convert shots or make the next pass. They kept the ball moving, though as mentioned above, it almost all started on the defensive end with a stop, or with a Lou-Trez pick and roll. Everyone contributed something, and that’s what the Clippers need to beat the Warriors.

5. Keep their composure

The Clippers probably would have lost Game 1 anyway, but they truly let the game slip away at the end of the 2nd quarter, when they lost their composure and got upset about some foul calls (or lack thereof). Their composure never slipped in that way in Game 2. Even though the Warriors went to the free throw line an incredible 45 times (including 16 in the 1st quarter), and two players (Beverley and JaMychal Green) fouled out, the Clippers never wasted their time arguing with referees or getting frustrated about calls. They just kept playing. Considering that the Clippers were down 31 in the 3rd, and down double digits for much of the 4th, they could have given up, or let their anger at calls get the best of them. But they did not, even when the Warriors were in the foul bonus just two minutes into the final period. The Clippers’ attitude and faith in a comeback were impressive, but their composure and ability to operate calmly under the highest pressure was just as important.

The Clippers just pulled off the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history, and put themselves down forever as one of the toughest, grittiest NBA teams in recent memory. But this series is not over, and neither team has any plans on letting up. Andrew Bogut said “We’re genuinely pissed off about it (the game)”, while Klay Thompson informed reporters, “We’ll bounce back, and play with great passion in a few days.” The Warriors are definitely going to come out hard, and the Clippers have to be ready for that blow. But this team, led by a confident Doc Rivers who has never coached better, has its eyes set higher than just a single comeback victory. Doc closed his presser by saying, “We have our own expectations, and we’re going to keep them.” Chills.