The basketball gods practically gift-wrapped Game 6 for the Los Angeles Clippers.
And yet, this series, like the other two contested Thursday, will be decided by a seventh game Saturday, after the Golden State Warriors pulled out a 100-99 win in front of a raucous home crowd at Oracle Arena.
On paper, there's no way the Warriors should've even hung tight in this one, much less stolen a season-saving victory. Golden State, already without starting center Andrew Bogut, lost backup big Jermaine O'Neal to a right knee sprain early in the second quarter, after a questionable collision with Glen Davis.
The rest of the Dubs' frontcourt rotation spent the evening fighting through foul trouble.
David Lee played just 26 minutes, picking up his sixth infraction with 9:43 left in the fourth quarter. That came just 32 seconds after embattled Warriors coach Mark Jackson subbed Lee in for Draymond Green, who'd been whistled for his fifth foul.
To make matters worse for Golden State, Marreese Speights tallied four fouls in the first half alone, forcing Jackson to bring the rarely used Hilton Armstrong off the bench. In his one minute of game time, Armstrong notched two fouls and bricked two free throws, after Clippers coach Doc Rivers answered Jackson's call for an intentional foul on DeAndre Jordan with a Hack-a-Hilton of his own.
With all that, you'd think the Clippers would've dominated the Dubs inside. You'd think Jordan, coming off a 25-point performance in Game 5, and Griffin, who's twice topped the 30-point mark in this series, would've kicked Golden State's bigs while they were down.
And yet, L.A. could barely buy a bucket on the interior. The Warriors blasted the Clippers in the paint, 42-24. Within the first few minutes of the second quarter, Golden State had already cracked double digits in the offensive rebounding department. Griffin shot 8-of-24 from the floor: 4-of-11 in the lane, 4-of-13 outside of it.
Before fouling out in the fourth quarter, that is.
Jordan hit all of his shots, but he only took three all night and converted just three times in nine attempts at the stripe.
In other words, L.A.'s bigs—one a bona fide superstar, the other a budding cornerstone in his own right—were outhustled and outmuscled by Golden State's rail-thin rotation.
Not that the guards should get off easy, either, if the "Blame Game" is the one to play. J.J. Redick went 2-of-10 from deep amid foul trouble of his own. Chris Paul, clearly limited by a gimpy hamstring and discomfort in his thumb, managed all of nine points on 10 shots.
Their opportunities were there for the taking as well. Stephen Curry scored 10 points over the final three quarters after piling up 14 in the opening frame. Klay Thompson (nine points on 3-of-11 from the field) hit on yet another cold streak, misfiring on his first six tries before finally breaking through in the third.
And yet, the Clippers couldn't quite pull ahead in the battle of backcourts, even with Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford combining for 31 points off the bench. They couldn't capitalize on a poor shooting night for Golden State (39.3 percent) since theirs (36.8 percent) was even worse.
To be sure, the Warriors deserve plenty of credit for wresting yet another win away from L.A. They hustled after every loose ball, worked together to wall off the interior, doubled down on Griffin's post-ups and generally played with the sort of desperation you'd expect from a team on the brink of elimination—especially one trying to send its fans home happy.
Not to mention keep its coach off the hot seat.
Mark Jackson: “This group will never be together again. Our group. So we have to do everything we can …"— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) May 2, 2014
Mark Jackson: I am fighting for my life. Our guys are fighting with our basketball lives.— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) May 2, 2014
The Clippers, though, didn't match Golden State's intensity. They didn't seem to play with the same sense of urgency, with the understanding that a "do-or-die" Game 7 could mean very different outcomes.
Too many jump shots for Griffin. Too few touches for Jordan. If not for Matt Barnes' big outing (18 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, one steal)—and big three in the waning seconds—this game, with so many clear advantages for L.A., would've been well out of hand for the Clippers early on.
Blake Griffin: "I thought both teams played poorly. I think they just grinder it out more than us."— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) May 2, 2014
And yet, there would seem little reason for the Clippers to panic. They lost by one measly point, despite the poor showings from their stars, despite the forgettable night from distance (11-of-35) and despite the hostile environment.
Which team has the edge heading into Game 7?
Better yet, the Clippers will host Game 7 at Staples Center, where they've gone 36-8 in 2013-14, between the regular season and the playoffs. On the whole, home teams have won nearly 80 percent of Game 7s in the NBA, with a record of 91-23.
History, then, is on L.A.'s side. So too is the talent, though that could change if Paul is hobbled in any significant way this weekend.
I mean, logically, the Clippers should run them off the face of the earth but logically, they should have already.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 2, 2014
Whether Paul is healthy or not, the Clippers would do well to up the ante as a team Saturday. They'll need to play with the same desperation, fire and confidence that the Warriors brought to the court in Game 6.
Otherwise, they'll have only themselves—not the Warriors, not the basketball gods—to blame for a second disappointingly early playoff exit in as many years.
Only this time, the Clippers will be dogged by their disgraced owner's debacle, in addition to a cacophony of questions about the team itself.