LOS ANGELES — On what will undoubtedly be remembered as the strangest Sunday afternoon of the 2015-16 NBA season, the last-place Los Angeles Lakers upended the 55-win Golden State Warriors by 17 points, delivering one of the most stunning regular-season losses in NBA history.
Little from this game made sense. The Warriors—puzzled by L.A.’s swarming, disciplined pick-and-roll defense—couldn’t knock down open threes or find the rim on wide-open layups.
Three of their starters—including Draymond Green, who finished with nine points, five fouls, seven turnovers and an unfamiliar lack of defensive intensity—failed to score a single point in the first quarter. Stephen Curry, the NBA’s brightest star and leading scorer, missed 14 of his 20 shots and finished with only 18 points, slightly over half his season average.
The entire team went 4-of-30 behind the three-point line, while Curry and Klay Thompson converted only one of their 18 combined attempts from downtown.
From the Lakers' perspective, one win doesn’t mean much logistically. It actually hurts the franchise’s chance to keep its 2016 draft pick, which goes to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside the top three.
But Lakers players and coaches agreed there's symbolic value in their young core playing fearlessly against a historically dominant team. Any signal that inexperienced players like D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson are trending in the right direction is a major plus.
“For the young guys, I think it’s extremely important to see the result of it. When you pay attention to little details, good things happen,” Kobe Bryant said. “As they grow, they start trusting that more and more, they start trusting the process more and more. So from that aspect, I think it was a big game.”
Russell and Clarkson were relentless on both ends of the floor. They jumped passing lanes, stayed active on the ball, created their own shot and knocked down dagger after dagger.
Russell finished with 21 points, five assists, three rebounds and four steals. He scored 13 points in the second quarter, extending L.A.'s lead as high as 14 and making the unbelievable feel real.
Afterward, Russell recognized his impact, but also understood that one win doesn’t make a career.
“I mean, [the win] was great,” he said. “I made shots. Defensively, I’ll watch film to see where I got beat, but I’ll figure that out sooner or later.”
Lakers head coach Byron Scott was complimentary of his backcourt after the win, too. Russell and Clarkson combined to score 13 more points than Thompson and Curry—arguably the most potent duo in the entire league.
“They took the challenge,” he said. “They were playing against the best backcourt in the league and if you want to get measured or get talked about as being a young backcourt that has a chance to be very good then you have to measure up against these two guys, and I thought they took the challenge from the start."
Clarkson and Russell are emerging as the two-headed engine of the Lakers' future. Outside of landing a superstar free agent like Kevin Durant or DeMar DeRozan this summer, nothing is more critical for this franchise’s long-term prosperity than the growth of this dynamic backcourt duo.
And things are definitely heading in the right direction.
“There’s times now where Jordan and I will talk and before I even say something, he says, ‘Yup, I know, this, that and the other, absolutely.’” Bryant said. “Things are just starting to click in for them all.”
Of course, much of Sunday’s outcome simply comes down to Golden State’s sluggishness—unforeseeable coincidences spliced with sports-related magic. Moving forward, Clarkson and Russell need to keep reminding themselves that legitimate NBA success is impossible without consistency.
"We’re hoping that that [young] talent can continue to blossom so we can get more games like this. That talent is still very inconsistent, very inexperienced, and they’re still learning this NBA-style game that they have to come prepared [for] every single night," Scott said. "We’ve got some very talented young players we feel real good about and we feel real good about the future, but it’s still going to take them some time to develop that chemistry that they need and that killer instinct they need to go out every single night and play like this.”
In what's otherwise a truly depressing season, Sunday's win showed the Lakers might already have several pivotal pieces in place.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.