With Donald Sterling's racism and subsequent lifetime ban from the NBA stealing headlines, it's easy to forget the Clippers-Warriors series actually had a little something to do with basketball once upon a time. And in a big way.
This was supposed to be the first round's most entertaining series for all the right reasons—a clash of styles, a budding rivalry, the potential for a whole lot of scoring on both sides.
Despite a couple of one-sided games, the series has largely lived up to the hype. Los Angeles and Golden State have each exchanged punches that could have resulted in momentum-swinging knockouts. The Clippers won Game 2 by 40 points. The Warriors took Game 4 by 21.
But both teams have demonstrated serious fortitude, and here we are. Los Angeles leads the series three games to two. If you had to give someone the edge, you'd give it to L.A.—but only by the narrowest of margins.
Golden State is hardly out of this.
In fact, it has several reasons to be hopeful.
The elder splash brother is due for another big game. The point guard had 33 points in Golden State's Game 4 victory but was held to just 10 shots and 17 points in Game 5. The good news is that it was an opportunity for other Warriors to find their rhythms, but make no mistake about it: This team needs to find more shots for its best player.
Should it do so in Game 6, look for Curry to have another explosive performance. He's capable of dropping 40 on any given night, and it's his limitless range that gives the Warriors such dangerous offensive potential.
The Clippers will continue to do everything they can to deny Curry the three-ball—going over screens, sending help, playing him physically.
But few are better than Curry when it comes to taking the heat and creating your own shot. He simply has to be aggressive, aware that he's Golden State's best scorer and willing to be a little selfish in an effort to exploit that.
It's the tough part about being a club's best scorer and passer. The instinct to get others involved can come at the expense of Curry's own production. That was especially true in Game 5. With Klay Thompson showing signs of potentially going off, the Warriors looked to get him the ball to the tune of 17 field-goal attempts.
That's all well and good, but something has to give. Curry can't wind up with 10 shots.
If the Warriors are going to pull this out, he won't. Nor will he turn the ball over eight times again.
Warriors head coach Mark Jackson expects better from his emergent superstar, according to ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Straus: "Tonight, he knows he's got to be better. Turned the ball over obviously a little too much. They did a good job on being active in their pick-and-roll defense."
But if there's anyone equipped to prove better offense beats good defense, it's Curry. The ball will be in his hands in Game 6, and Golden State's fate along with it.
Blake Griffin Isn't Unstoppable
Griffin combined for 67 points in Games 2 and 3, and it looked for a minute there like he was poised to take this series over. But he has been held in check to some degree in each of the last two meetings, scoring a combined 39 points and only putting up 14 shots in each contest.
The primary difference has been that Golden State is putting a smaller defender on him. Draymond Green has answered the call, using his quickness, toughness and lower center of gravity to body up with Griffin and make him work hard in the post.
Jackson deserves a lot of credit for the adjustment. It hasn't completely shut Griffin down (what would?), but it's certainly made his life harder.
Green got into early foul trouble in Game 5, but it was Griffin who found himself saddled with four fouls in the third quarter. Wouldn't you know Green had a little something to do with that.
The bigger problem for the Warriors is the paint in general, including DeAndre Jordan's ability to dominate the area with his size. The Clippers center scored a team-high 25 points in Game 5 and controlled the glass with 18 rebounds—six on the offensive end.
Curry attributed some of the struggles to defensive execution, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), saying, "We had the momentum coming off the last game but we had too many turnovers and we were not consistent. Our defense didn't stick to its plan. We have to figure out how to control the paint and can't let them get off to a big start."
Therein lies the double-bind one finds when starting Green at the power forward spot. It may help control Griffin, but it means one less big body to patrol the paint. Green did his best to be sure, finishing with 11 rebounds and holding Griffin to just six of 14 from the field.
And altogether, the Warriors actually out-rebounded L.A. 42-41.
But the problem remains Jordan. He was held to zero points and just one field-goal attempt in Game 4, but he's otherwise posed problems with his size and athleticism. For the series he's averaging 12.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks. Put simply, the Warriors don't have an answer for him on either end of the floor.
Don't be surprised if we see more than 12 minutes of Jermaine O'Neal in Game 6. He's showed promise of keeping Jordan in check, and he's the biggest body Jackson can throw at the Clippers.
A Return Home
The Warriors just need to push this series to a final, decisive game. From there anything's possible.
The fact that Game 6 will be played at Oracle Arena shouldn't be underestimated. The Warriors pulled off a blowout there in Game 4, and they nearly came away with Game 3 there. The energy at Oracle is palpable, and now's the best-possible time to get away from Staples Center.
For a minute there, the Sterling scandal looked like it might derail the Clippers for good. Though they certainly weren't the only team affected, they appeared to be overwhelmed in Game 4.
Jamal Crawford admitted as much after Game 5, again per the AP: "You couldn't shake it. You'd try to take a nap, you'd wake up, and you'd think it's a bad dream. You couldn't shake it but it drains you, even mentally more than physically. I'm glad we had the strength to get through it. With that cloud over you, you never know. This thing could have gone either way."
But the tone surrounding the Clippers has changed dramatically.
Grantland's Andrew Sharp profiles the first Clippers game after Sterling's judgement came on down from high:
This was really just a game — full of bad calls, big shots, highlight dunks, Griffin harassment, and Big Baby curses loud enough for the whole stadium to hear. After a week in the emotional spin cycle, it was nice to just be at a regular playoff game. The crowd was loud throughout, and every other fast break or CP3 jumper was an excuse to lose their minds all over again. At least for 48 minutes, the Clippers were fun again.
Fun, yes—and vindicated. This was more than just a game for the Clippers, even if it felt normal enough to the rest of us. Now the Clippers are free to be themselves again, free from pressure to protest, free from all the questions about what they'd have the rest of the league do, free to be "fun again."
And Staples Center was ground zero for the turnaround.
That's just too much for the Warriors to compete with. While the momentum gravitating around the Clippers and their home base may subside by Game 7 (should there be one), it was in full force on Tuesday night. Appropriately so.
For a moment, the Clippers were America's team, and Angelinos were there to remind us. How could anyone be against the Clippers at a time like this? How could anyone outside of the Bay Area be a Warriors fan at a time like this?
Accordingly, a return to Oracle could be pivotal. The Warriors need some reprieve from this story. It's not that they've been the principal victims in all of this, but they certainly aren't the heroes either—least of all at Staples.
But they can still be heroes at home, and two more wins are all it will take.