The raucous Oracle crowd. The sea of gold shirts. The inevitable onslaught of Stephen Curry threes. The Los Angeles Clippers knew they were in for the biggest test of their young postseason.
They passed them all with flying (and lobbing) colors.
Blake Griffin scored 32 points, DeAndre Jordan turned in his second double-double of the series and Curry's potential game-winning shot fell short, as the Clippers held off a torrid Golden State Warriors comeback en route to a 98-96 victory on Thursday night.
Curry's shot will inevitably carry the storyline going into Game 4. Down two and with Chris Paul guarding him close on a late inbounds pass, Curry attempted a step-back three with less than four seconds left that would have put Golden State ahead. The ball fell way short, and replays clearly showed Paul's left elbow jabbing into Curry's side as he went up for the shot.
No foul was called, Jordan grabbed the rebound and the Clippers walked away breathing a deep sigh of relief.
The win gives Los Angeles a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series and snaps a five-game losing streak at Oracle Arena. The Clippers had struggled mightily at Oracle even going back to the pre-Paul era, coming in with losses in 15 of their last 17 contests. Going on the road, against this team, in this arena was a necessary step and litmus test for a Clippers team fraught with bouts of immaturity at this time last year.
Eliminated in a hard-fought six-game series by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers were defined by their wilting under the spotlight. Chris Paul barked commands, Griffin was more concerned with interpersonal tussles with Zach Randolph and Jordan watched—literally, he was on the bench.
These Clippers have shown how big a difference a year makes. Down a game and having given up home-court advantage after a surprise Game 1 loss, they could have fallen victim to the same mistakes. Instead, they picked themselves back up and turned in eight quarters of sterling basketball and regained what they lost.
With Klay Thompson and Curry finally heating up and turning what once looked like a blowout into a thriller, the Clippers responded with one cold-blooded, battle-tested shot after another. From Griffin hitting a fallaway, contested jumper with the shot clock expiring to Paul's singular grasping of the offensive reins down the stretch, Los Angeles did just enough to keep its Pacific Division rivals at arm's length.
Golden State, in need of an offensive infusion with its defensive anchor out, could never get in a rhythm from outside until it was too late. The Warriors made 6-of-31 shots from beyond the three-point stripe, despite numerous open looks.
Curry set a series-high with 15 assists, but shot 5-of-12 from the field for 16 points. Curry has been limited to 18 points per game through the first three games, six less than his season average. Klay Thompson scored a team-high 26 points, a feat somewhat marginalized by missing all but two of his 11 attempts from deep. David Lee, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Jermaine O'Neal each scored in double-figures, but there was just not a second banana ready to match Thompson's scoring.
The Clippers had two very large ones to go along with Paul.
Griffin and Jordan have taken flight—often literally and in more than one way—in this series. Los Angeles has been dominant any time Griffin touches the floor. Without the constraints of Andrew Bogut patrolling the middle, Griffin looked freed again Thursday night. He backed down undersized and overmatched defenders for easy buckets in the paint before forcing them to back off, then hitting a mid-range jumper and emitting a sly smirk.
"I think that's what separates him from the Blake Griffin of last year," Jackson told reporters before the game. "He's a guy that's put a lot of time in. He now makes you pay with his ability to shoot the basketball."
Griffin's 32 points came despite his worst performance at the charity stripe since opening night. The All-Star forward went 2-of-9 on his free throws, while Jordan turned in his own struggles by missing five of his nine attempts. As a team, the Clippers shot just 43.5 percent at the line—allowing the Warriors to stay in the game far longer than perhaps they deserved.
Free throws were the only area of issue for Jordan, whose reputation as a two-way force is becoming unimpeachable. Bullying O'Neal and Lee out of the way on both ends of the floor, Jordan eased his way to 14 points while grabbing 22 rebounds and blocking five shots. The Warriors were 25-of-45 inside the restricted area—a below-average mark—in large part to Jordan's presence.
At times, the only thing that has been able to stop the Clippers has been their own bodies. Paul tweaked his bothersome hamstring in the first half, and Matt Barnes went to the bench in the second half with an ugly toe injury. Paul's injury troubles limited him to 35 minutes, and he was mostly absent as a scorer until the fourth quarter. He finished with 15 points and 10 assists.
For the Warriors, not only have they lost home-court advantage but it seems they've also lost whatever mental edge they had over Los Angeles during the regular season. It was Golden State, not the Clippers, struggling with composure in the dire moments. Green jawed in Jordan's face and picked up a flagrant when he fouled Griffin during a period in the third quarter the Warriors looked dangerously close to melting down.
They didn't, and the contest wound up being the thriller we're accustomed to when these teams meet. But, for perhaps the first time since this core came together, the Clippers won a game because they withstood the storm.
We'll see what the Warriors have in store when the teams reconvene Sunday at Oracle.
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