LOS ANGELES -- There's a dirty secret about the Golden State Warriors-Los Angeles Clippers rivalry, the most pleasantly acrimonious feud in basketball: It's pretty lopsided, at least in the Steve Kerr era. Now, Golden State has claimed five of the last six meetings. Thursday night's thrilling 124-117 Warriors victory was a reminder that, for all the Clippers' will, talent and effort, they're playing from behind -- even when they're ahead.
"Even when they were hitting everything, it still never felt like they were just controlling the game," Draymond Green said of the massive 23-point Los Angeles lead that slowly evaporated under this hyped game's bright lights. Of the losses Golden State has handed their rival, this might have been the most demoralizing yet.
The Clippers came out blasting the Warriors, jumping them in a 41-point first quarter where Chris Paul flaunted his most brilliant moves. Then, at the height of their hold, they started doing things one associates with Clippers collapses. With the lead at 55-37, with 4:36 left in the second, DeAndre Jordan got an angry technical in the backcourt. A possession later, after Warriors center Andrew Bogut delivered a hard foul on Paul, Doc Rivers picked up another one. Maybe it was meaningless in the grand scheme, but there was something off about a team so comfortably ahead appearing so uncomfortable.
Golden State, in contrast, was not losing its wits. Savvy Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, in all his process-over-results wisdom, put the effort like this: "It's like chopping down trees." As in, the process should be methodical, since you can't close a 20-point gap in one incredible play. The effort should be intelligent, collective and above all, calm. "Don't panic," was the refrain from multiple Warriors players about the effort to get back in this game.
That part of the Warriors can get lost in the shuffle, as we, again, behold another scintillating Stephen Curry scoring performance (40 points on 22 shots). This is an intelligent team, loaded with basketball literacy. When everything seems lost, they often find a way to tilt the odds back in their favor. That's one of the reasons the Warriors, insanely, won their last five games in which they gave up a 40-point first quarter. When the Warriors get hit in the mouth, they pick themselves up and get to work eroding the force that smacked them.
On the team's collective basketball IQ, Iguodala said, "That's one of those things that you can never really measure. It's not going to show up in analytics, it's not going to show up in the box score. We feel like, when we have certain lineups, it's kind of like playing chess."
Golden State's chess means making the right play over the hero play. It helps to have a player whose heroics are feared. Green and Iguodala both referred to Curry as "the best player" in the game, and defenses are treating him with commensurate respect. The attention Curry earns starts a chain reaction, a sequence that ends in an open shot for players like Iguodala.
The league has yet to figure out the Curry-Green pick and roll, especially in lineups where Green plays center. Teams either must concede room for a Curry 3-pointer, a mismatched switch, or a driving Green in space with which to work. A game can seem close, down to the wire. This lineup is often the sudden burst of separation, the coup de grace that reveals suspense to be an illusion.
On Thursday, the Warriors rode this lineup to victory. In the final six minutes, the Green-at-center unit outscored the Clippers by 17, including a meaningless, uncontested Paul layup at the end. It scored 25 points on eight field goal attempts, shredding the spirited Los Angeles resistance by making the right play, repeatedly.
It should be noted that Blake Griffin and Paul played brilliantly for most of this game. The Warriors also delivered a flawed performance, to be sure. Maybe in the future, the Clippers can realize their potential and optimize their talent against their rivals from the north. Until that point, this is less a rivalry than an exhibition in chess versus checkers.