When a Steph Curry jumper gave the Warriors a four-point lead with less than a minute left, it was easy to see the writing on the wall because it had been there so many times before. On the rare occasions that Golden State finds itself in trouble, it still has Curry and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to bail it out. And the Warriors were in trouble. In Game 2 of their first-round series against the Clippers, a 31-point lead had shrunk to one. That score from Curry pushed the lead to two possessions; it felt like a dagger to everyone but the team on the other side.
A calm, collected Lou Williams got to work, notching his 35th and 36th points—12 of those in the fourth quarter—on an off-balance jumper with 46 seconds left. And after Thompson missed a 3 on the other end, rookie Landry Shamet hit his own 3 with 16.5 seconds left, off an assist from fellow first-year Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The old guard carried Los Angeles to the finish line, and the two young ones pushed them through the tape. A last-gasp Curry 3 missed, and the 135-131 score was final. The Clippers had completed the largest comeback in playoff history.
After completely dominating the first half, Golden State gave up 72 points in 19 minutes. Read that again. That’s more than three points a minute. What was garbage time to the Warriors quickly became the Clippers’ treasure. Williams decided to celebrate the win with postgame nachos, as one does.
The Clippers are not going to win this series. But Monday night’s win was shorthand for the kind of squad they have been all season long. Through injuries and surprising trades, they persisted and shape-shifted. When many thought they would pack it in and tank the rest of the season after trading away Tobias Harris, the Clippers played their best basketball and made the playoffs. Led by two rookies in the backcourt and a blissful bench duo—Williams and Montrezl Harrell—who zigged and zagged the Warriors defense to death in Game 2, Los Angeles is the best version of a team without a superstar: effective and fun to watch. Who doesn’t like an underdog that can win?
All season long, the Clippers managed victories like Monday’s where they were behind the talent curve and losing big but came back to win (L.A. had six wins after being down 15 or more this season). They were never out of a game, just like they never doubted that they could win 48 games (10.5 more than their preseason over/under). Game 2 embodied and rewarded that belief.
A note on the Warriors: While Golden State’s defense hemorrhaged points, the team’s offense, when the game had seemed to be over, played with the laissez-faire attitude of a summer league team. The game had gotten so out of hand that coach Steve Kerr played all 13 of his players and five bench players more than 11 minutes. What this game says about the Clippers is perhaps not as interesting over the long run as what it may say about the two-time defending champions. Most of the time, they look unbeatable; but occasionally they have looked ready to crumble under the weight of their own dynastic run. The question is: Which version of themselves is real? The loss prevents this series from being a sweep, which means it cuts the Warriors’ rest time before the second round by at least three days. In the first quarter, they also lost DeMarcus Cousins to what is feared to be a torn quad, which would put him on the sideline for the rest of the season. It was a worst-case scenario game in a series that was supposed to be a cakewalk.
When the comeback got real in Game 2, the Warriors resorted to their typically deadly Hamptons Five lineup. On Monday, that lineup was on the floor for four minutes and was outscored 12-8, posting a net rating of minus-46.2. The sample size may have been small, but the irony was noted. Golden State doesn’t usually show cracks until the later rounds of the postseason. Of course the Clippers would expose some of them early. Now, they have a signature playoff win that can help validate the culture they are building.
Before the series began, head coach Doc Rivers said this team was probably the most fun group he’s had in his career. A game like Monday’s makes it easy to see why. Rarely do you have a team whose success is best explained by intangibles. Sure, you can get into the numbers, the things they do well, the depth of their bench, and the fast-tracked growth of their rookies, but in the end, the Clippers are best defined as a team with a lot of fight. Nobody would have blamed the Clippers if they’d just packed it in during Game 2, but as Rivers likes to say of his team, they are never going to try to be something they are not; and just like they’re by no means a superteam, they also are by no means a team that gives in.