Clippers' massive meltdown against Warriors reveals much larger issues
If this is a rivalry, then so was Icarus vs. the sun.
Even after taking a 23-point first-half lead over the Warriors, the Clippers couldn’t hold on for a victory Thursday evening, falling 124-117 to the defending -- and likely to repeat -- champions. Maybe worse, L.A. led by 10 with five minutes left in regulation. Still, the inevitable came.
Same act, different play, as though the Warriors were plagiarizing themselves when they went 8 for 9 from 3 during the final period. If 13-0 Golden State wasn’t losing this one, a game in which Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combined for 30 points and six assists in the first quarter alone, then when the heck would a defeat come?
During his postgame presser, Griffin kept using a phrase, which may have been more telling than he realized. He conceded that Golden State was the better team. How could he not? The Warriors are already six games better than the Clippers in the irrelevant Pacific Division standings. But he also kept dropping these same two words, describing the Warriors as “more together." Multiple times. "More together."
The Clippers hit just about every shot against the Warriors. They pestered the Warriors' Stephen Curry, who still managed to go for 40 because he’s unrealistically good at this point. They communicated -- for the most part -- well on the defensive end. And yet, Golden State was too dominant.
That’s not the Clippers' fault. The Warriors, for all we know, are in the midst of the best season many of us will ever see. Blowing a 23-point lead at home when they had 30 minutes of game time to recover from that self-inflicted deficit (and make no mistake about it: When the Warriors trail in a game, it’s because they’re hurting themselves more than you’re hurting them) isn’t actually as debilitating as it sounds. But what was the Clippers' fault were the typical issues, the ones we see year in and year out that hurt L.A. late.
For instance, take a look at this fantastic inbounds play from interim coach Luke Walton’s boys to give the Warriors a 118-115 lead with about a minute to play, and when you do, make sure to watch DeAndre Jordan in the corner:
Sure, plenty of the credit goes to the play call. And plenty of it goes to Curry, too. His mere presence as he runs through those two picks, whose basketball vernacular term is “elevator doors,” sends multiple defenders flying at him. But where is Jordan, who has finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the past two years despite committing flaws like the one above? He’s hanging in the corner, not really guarding anyone as he tries to guard everyone, unaware that Draymond Green is about to roll to the hoop, a common next step for Green after the Warriors run this elevator doors play.
Actually, Jordan didn’t even need to study film to know Draymond’s tendency on that play. The Warriors ran something similar from a separate spot on the court earlier in the game, and Green did the same thing. Still, Jordan didn’t recognize it with a minute to go.
It’s unfair to pick on solely Jordan, who is still one of the best defenders on the team and has proven to be an integral member of the Clips, well worthy of the max contract he earned this summer. But the above mistake is too microcosmic of the dichotomy between what’s going on in the north and in the south of California. One team is flawlessly running complicated out-of-bounds plays late in games. The other isn’t recognizing them quickly enough.
That, in a nutshell, has been the problem with the Clippers all along. It was an issue during Vinny Del Negro's final season with the team, when Griffin’s and DeAndre Jordan’s growth seemed stunted. And with Paul Pierce and Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson (who didn’t play one second against Golden State after running for only three minutes against the Pistons in the Clippers’ previous game) and the rest of the new additions in town, the Clippers still lack some sort of championship-level cohesion.
These sorts of issues tend to blend over on good teams as the year continues. If you recall, anyone could’ve written similar blurbs about last year’s Clippers, who got off to a 5-4 start and looked lackluster for basically the first three-quarters of the season before getting hot at the end of the year and eventually beating the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. But this year’s team was supposed to have some of those plagues cured, especially with the edition of Pierce, whose production has sunk thus far this season and whose crunch-time defense -- along with Jamal Crawford’s -- led to a bunch of those fourth-quarter 3s.
The Warriors are so all-around devastating, it’s hard to identify what they aren’t the best at now. Being “more together” than the Clippers is hardly a surprise. They’re “more together” than everyone. But this Clippers group has been together as is for at least three years, maybe more if you consider the time before Rivers’ arrival as a learning experience.
If it’s not together enough now, then when?
Follow Fred Katz on Twitter: @FredKatz.