OAKLAND, CALIF. — This first-round series between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers has been some kind of endurance test. For fans at home, it’s meant late nights and next-morning yawns. For the national media, it’s been a crash course in stories that transcend sports and He Who Will Be Banned.
But for the players, the ones who truly count in this scenario, these six games have resembled one Tough Mudder course after another. Neither team has played particularly well for any extended stretch throughout. Oh, you made less than half your free throws and had more turnovers than assists? Didn’t really matter in the end, if you can beat the other person to the finish line.
So far, the series between the Clippers and Warriors has been an endurance test that will culminate Saturday night back in the Clippers’ self-proclaimed safe haven of Staples Center. But before that was certain, it was Mark Jackson’s Warriors who had to play just less bad enough than the Clippers to force such a deciding game.
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They really had no other choice. There’s been constant mumbling in recent weeks that Jackson is basically coaching for his job, which is to say his days are numbered save for some historic run deep into May (or, dare to truly dream, June). He emphasized to his players that, with the realities of annual NBA roster turnover, this particular group will never play together again if they lose. To Jackson, that was the reason they banded together and pulled out a skin-of-their-teeth 100-99 win in front of a sellout crowd at Oracle Arena.
"I’m proud of my guys. It’s been an incredible, incredible ride," said Jackson, who seemed to be speaking in past, present, and future tense at the same time. "And now, against a 3-seed with two of the top 10 players in the world, and a future Hall of Fame coach, we are going to Game 7, in spite of all the sideline music. And I like my chances because I’ve got a group of guys who’ll do whatever it takes to win. You look at Jermaine [O’Neal] go down. Mo Speights? Ready. Hilton Armstrong? Ready. Jordan Crawford? Ready. Draymond Green, a gamer. David [Lee] responded. I’m proud of these guys, and it wasn’t our best night. We miss 14 free throws, we shoot 38 percent from the field. Klay [Thompson] gets nine points, and we win a ballgame.
"I look forward to Game 7."
He didn’t actually drop his mic, but the point was made.
Oracle Arena was not only loud — as it had been for Games 3 and 4 — but temperature control was off-kilter all evening. A heat wave has been battering the Bay Area, with 90-degree temps in many areas for several days. The mercury outside was still at 86 just an hour or so before tipoff. The fans inside were banging thundersticks in unison and screaming their lungs through 3,000 mini-megaphones that were handed out before the game.
The second-half of the fourth quarter was a bizarre mishmash of alley-oops, desperation threes, and timeouts that went on for eons.
Steph Curry has likely never been cheered so much at home for missing a free throw, but his second-straight clank with 0.4 second to play sealed the Clippers’ fate.
"You have to come play," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said about what awaits his team in Game 7. "When you’re at home, you can’t rely on home. The fans will still give us great energy, but you have to perform, and that’s the bottom line."
So how do the Warriors come away with a win on the road, something they haven’t done since 1948?
Draymond Green starting and getting starter’s minutes (40:35 in Game 6) has made a noticeable difference in how the Clippers press their attack. They can’t stop going to Griffin, but Green is largely holding him in check, which is really always a relative thing when we talk about Blake Griffin doing things only he can do.
But Griffin fouled out in the fourth with 17 points and nine rebounds and was a non-factor for much of the contest. If Green can slow down Griffin just once more, force him to take and make that 19-footer all night, and make DeAndre Jordan work harder as the Clipsâ primary low-post offensive option (just nine points and two offensive rebounds in Game 6), that’s a winning formula for Mark Jackson.
On the other end, Curry needs to keep taking shots, even if his percentage is down this series. His sweet stroke is the Warriors’ best hope, but a better performance from Splash Bro Klay Thompson (nine points on 11 shots) would drastically increase Golden State’s win probability.
Doc Rivers doesn’t have NBA Superstar Chris Paul at his disposal. A litany of injuries and ailments (as well as the added distraction of being the president of the Players Association) has largely kept him from his usual efficiency and athleticism.
In Game 6, he finished with nine points on 10 shots, eight assists to four turnovers. Those are Cliff Paul numbers, even if his defense was still up to Rivers’ liking. And even then, Paul managed only one steal and was routinely beaten on screens in just under 34 minutes.
Also, Jamal Crawford (19 points points in Game 6) cannot be the Clippers’ leading scorer. If so, then congratulations to the Warriors on a monumental, franchise-changing road win.
At this point, these two teams know each other so well that everything is unexpected. Nothing is certain, except that the directions of these franchises will veer off in wildly different courses no matter the result.