It felt like the playoffs. And there were some substantial playoff stakes on the line on Wednesday night.
Golden State hadn’t won a road game in seven-straight attempts, and came down to Los Angeles to kick off a five-game road trip against a Clippers team they were tied with in the standings at 36-33 each.
A win would give the Warriors a 3-1 season lead over Los Angeles and a potentially massive tiebreaker. It was not to be.
For the ninth-straight time, and despite a near-immaculate performance from Stephen Curry, the Warriors lost on the road in 134-126 fashion.
The result can best be summed up by the ending shot of Curry sitting with a towel over his head on the bench after doing just about everything in his power, but coming up short.
Playoff-quality basketball, and Steph’s ‘sorcery’
It was evident from the tip that the Warriors were playing intentional basketball, at least on the defensive end. Their lackadaisical tendencies on defense have killed them on the road this season, and they showed up on that end for a while.
The early strategy featured a lot of offensive back-cutting and persistent defensive effort.
It was a game of constant ebbs and flows.
But as the game went on, those flows went in the Clippers’ direction, capitalizing on second-chance opportunities and turnovers. The Warriors just didn’t have enough to keep up with the Clippers’ size.
That was despite an outrageous night of — as broadcaster Dave Pasch called it “sorcery” — from Stephen Curry.
There was one stretch from Curry in the third quarter that was startling. He was in a flow state, playing the sort of basketball that has quite literally inspired a generation of kids.
He was hitting everything. He hit back-to-back mind-boggling threes, then cut through the entirety of the Clippers’ defense to get up to 14-of-19 and 7-of-10 from three.
By the end of that quarter, he looked borderline defeated. The Warriors trailed by six after a 14-point quarter from Eric Gordon and early bonus trouble saw the Clippers head to the free throw line a few times.
But in the waning seconds, he mustered the energy for another preposterous drive through the lane, getting hit twice and tossing in a nonsensical layup that somehow didn’t earn him an and-one.
He let the refs hear it after the buzzer, and understandably so. You could see a huge scratch on his right shoulder and there were numerous drives he’d been contacted. It’s been well-documented that Curry doesn’t get all the calls he probably should.
By the end of the third quarter, he hadn’t taken a single free throw. He had 41 points, was 17-of-23 and 7-of-11 from three, but not a single free throw attempt. Golden State didn’t take a single free throw in the third quarter.
That changed in the fourth, though Curry, inexplicably, went 2-of-4 from the line. His defense was also lax at times, but you can excuse that when he’s absolutely flamethrowing on the other end and shouldering just about the entire offensive load.
He had 50 points on 20-of-28 shooting and 8-of-14 for three with 6 assists, a couple rebounds, a couple steals and a couple turnovers.
It didn’t matter though. Curry and the Warriors ran out of gas because…
Warriors’ lack of length (and strength) is evident
Without Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II, Anthony Lamb, and likely Andre Iguodala for the year (and possibly his career), Wednesday showed a brutal gap in size and physicality.
Los Angeles has an abundance of length and switchable players who presented Golden State with serious problems on defense and on the boards.
Even Russell Westbrook, who’s been turned into something of a joke, was a problem. He snuck in a handful of times to steal offensive rebounds and give the Clippers extra possessions. He was great, putting up 16 points, 9 rebounds (4 on offense), 7 assists and 2 steals with zero turnovers.
Terrence Mann has a similar effect and was even tougher to defend when he drove to the rim. He had 17 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
Ivica Zubac consistently created problems with his height, adding 19 points and 16 rebounds (five on offense), as did Mason Plumlee in limited minutes.
Even Nic Batum was stellar on both ends, getting himself a couple of steals and highlighting his high basketball IQ.
There were just too many long arms attacking passing lanes and shot glimpses, and it showed, especially early. Golden State had 12 first half turnovers, and had 16 to the Clippers’ seven.
Los Angeles had 16 offensive rebounds which led to 23 points.
And this is all without mentioning Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who are both very, very, very good.
They combined for 54 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals and just 3 turnovers. With everyone else playing pretty well around them, they looked like a serious contender.
Some general nonsense
When you get a game with legitimate playoff intensity, things can get chippy.
It didn’t actually feel all that chippy for most of Wednesday night, just physical. But in the third quarter, there was some foolishness abound.
The first bit came from Draymond Green, who tossed a ball that hit Russell Westbrook in the head and picked up his 16th technical foul. He’ll be suspended for Friday night’s game with the Atlanta Hawks.
Just moments after that, Marcus Morris got ejected for whacking Green on the head in what seemed like a fairly questionable flagrant 2 foul. The refereeing was questionable in general on Wednesday, though it seemed to be the case for both teams.
Also a note for the general nonsense category: Jordan Poole.
He is an infuriating watch so often. He just doesn’t have anywhere near the physicality or consistent shooting stroke to make up for a maddeningly low basketball IQ.
For reference, he’s shooting 32.9 percent from three this season. Draymond Green? 32.4 percent. That is not what you want from a guy who’s about to make $32 million a year starting next year.
Maybe it’s just exacerbated by the fact that the Warriors are so starved for length, but he just cannot be on the floor in way too many situations for Golden State.
And this is after a game when he had 19 points (6-of-11, 3-of-5 from three) and 5 assists. But he also had four dreadful turnovers. He has an astonishing capacity to make you forget some of the amazing things he does. In the first quarter, he was outstanding.
And then he disappeared from the game late. At times you wonder if he’ll remain on the this team next year. He’s certainly not offering much right now.