LOS ANGELES -- After Chris Paul's first-quarter pyrotechnics were reduced to medium heat then fired up again in the fourth quarter to a roaring flame, the Los Angeles Clippers' defense was on the spot. It was an apt test, the culmination of a regular-season classic fit for May against the league's best team in a decade at a moment when the Clippers had fought off the Golden State Warriors to re-establish a 10-point lead inside of six minutes Thursday night.
The final result was a confirmation of what we've come to know about the Clippers -- a juggernaut of an offensive unit with versatile weaponry, outrageous skill and competitive drive, but a defense that leaks in the wrong places at the wrong times of a 124-117 Golden State comeback victory.
The Warriors are almost an unfair measuring stick, a team that's designed to leave defenses nothing but bad choices, but that's the course load in the Western Conference. And at the game's breaking point, Golden State unleashed 100 seconds of offensive fury, two possessions that exploited the Clippers' defensive strategy, and a third that exploited the Clippers' pokey transition D.
The first possession is a showcase of the Warriors' signature features, a small-ball ballet that leverages the unit's versatility and range. The initial action is a lethal Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll at the top of the key, with Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala along the right, and Harrison Barnes on the right block scattered along the right side of the court. For the past couple of years, the NBA has been engaged in a debate about how best to defend Curry.
Among the menu of options:
Do you switch the action to maintain a body on Curry and protect the backside of your defense? Do you trap to pressure the ball and make damn well sure Curry doesn't see daylight? Do you play "up to touch," with the big man leveling off the screen, then quickly retreating when Green rolls?
The Clippers choose to trap with Paul and DeAndre Jordan, and when Curry dumps the ball off to a rolling Green, the Clippers three defenders behind the action must rotate. Paul Pierce is a bit slow to pick up Green in the lane. Blake Griffin pinches down to pick up Barnes, which leaves Jamal Crawford on Thompson, with an open Iguodala in the right corner. With Paul essentially out of the play after the pick, Clippers' defensive maven Lawrence Frank screams to Crawford to sink low. Meanwhile, Barnes has screened Griffin beneath the basket and effectively kept him from fighting his way back to Iguodala. Not that it matters. Thompson points to Iguodala, who has set up a chaise lounge in the right corner, not a defender within eight feet.
"It wasn't a broken coverage," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "We picked our poison, and he made us pay. He does shoot corner 3s extremely well, but we had to live with something, so we lived with that. That was my decision and they made them both."
Less than a minute later after Crawford launches a 26-footer just before the shot clock buzzer, Green takes off downcourt. Like a man who's watched a mile of Griffin film, Green gets an early seal on Crawford, who has made a valiant attempt to pick up Green on the other end, but is no match for Green's tuchus. Green gets an easy layup off an Iguodala bounce pass. For the Clippers, it's a cruel stroke of irony. They're among the NBA squads who generally forsake the offensive glass for transition D. No matter.
For their next sleight of hand, the Warriors return to the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, this time with primo spacing -- Iguodala in the left corner, Barnes in the right, with Thompson on the right wing. Again the Clippers trap, and again Curry lures both Paul and Jordan halfway to Ventura, which means one of the game's premier interior defenders is in no proximity to the basket.
Curry dumps the pass off to Green along the arc, and now it's 4-on-3 for the Warriors, with Curry dancing back to the arc, Green with a swath of real estate in front of him, Iguodala to his left (Griffin defending), Barnes to his right (Pierce), and Thompson across the way (Crawford).
In NBA parlance, defenses need to be "on a string," but the Clippers are on a slinky. Who picks up Green, who is advancing into the lane with the ball? Is it Pierce or Griffin? Traditionally, it would be the weak side corner defender (it's a cardinal sin in the NBA for the strong-side corner defender to rotate off even a passable 3-point shooter), but herein lies the Warriors' genius. Within a span of three seconds, the Dubs have flipped the board. What was initially the strong side (unpictured due to the previous replay) became the weak side for a split second, then the strong side again.
As Griffin collapses on Green, the ball goes to Iguodala. Again he has eight feet and again he drains the shot.
The Clips deserve a small break because the Warriors can pick the lock on any trap, especially with three shooters scattered along the arc. There isn't a defense which has successfully cracked the code for any sustained period of time against the Warriors. But the eight feet of real estate between Iguodala and his closest defender, along with Green's early seal, provides a window into a 24th-ranked defense that, too often, picks its poison, then digests it in heaping spoonfuls.