The remainder of the Clippers’ season is potentially only 48 minutes, and a barrage of baskets by Golden State star Kevin Durant, away.
They trail the two-time defending champion Warriors 3-1 entering Game 5 of their best-of-seven series Wednesday in Oakland.
The circumstances are foreboding — and someone should remind Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who showed up to practice Tuesday bearing a smile, not a grimace.
“It's funny, down 3-1 and you still can't wait to get to practice,” he said of working with his team. “They're just an amazing group to be around, they really are.”
Rivers doesn’t want this season, which he has often called one of his most satisfying, to end. For all the reasons it was expected to go wrong — massive roster turnover, a team littered with free-agents-to-be concerned for their futures, playing in a deep Western Conference — the Clippers have instead upset expectations and opponents.
Yet a team whose identity has been forged through five comebacks of 20 or more points this season now faces the ultimate test of its resilience.
“I kind of know who we are and I think our team has felt their backs have been against the wall all year,” Rivers said. “I don't see this as anything different. Now, I can't guarantee you that we're going to play great or not, but we'll be ready.”
Being ready is one thing and executing a game plan to near-perfection is another.
The Clippers need both to extend the series and play a Game 6 in Los Angeles on Friday.
Durant, whose first two games of this series were dissected over trouble caused by his fouls and the Clippers’ defense, has served notice during the last two games why he is one of the world’s best players. Rather than largely stationing the same defender on Durant — Patrick Beverley in Games 1 and 2 — the Clippers have shifted to spread his possessions between forwards JaMychal Green and Danilo Gallinari. The change wasn’t without success.
“JaMychal Green is obviously taller,” Durant said following Game 4. “Where I initiate and where I operate from on the floor has to change.”
Durant averaged 35.5 points on 59% shooting in Games 3 and 4 nonetheless.
The Warriors possess such a surplus of talent that even a three-for-14 shooting night by star Stephen Curry, as was the case during Golden State’s Game 4 victory, can be overcome when teammates like Durant and Klay Thompson catch fire.
The Clippers own a slimmer margin for error. For the first time all season, Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari is slumping, though the offensive woes don’t end with him.
“We haven’t been able to get everybody on the same page,” reserve guard Lou Williams said, “and have good games the same night.”
Never has Rivers’ old adage that the NBA is a “make-or-miss league” been more true than during a series against the Warriors, whose sheer offensive talent means they are bound to make shots. (Even in their lone loss of the series, they scored 131 points.) The Warriors have produced the best effective field goal percentage and assist percentage among playoff teams and rank second in offensive rating.
The Clippers’ response will hinge greatly on the play of Gallinari and Williams, the team’s two highest scorers this season who have combined to make only 24% of their shots from the field and 15% of their three-point attempts during the last two games, both Clippers losses. Others around them must take pressure off the pair too. Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander set a Clippers rookie playoff record with 25 points in Game 4 after a prodding from assistant Sam Cassell following Game 3.
“We saw a lot of spots where I could be better on both ends of the floor,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I just started to take advantage.”
One such spot was in the Clippers’ pick-and-roll scheme, which has become even more effective in the postseason despite already being one of the league’s most potent. Clippers ballhandlers in pick-and-roll plays have accounted for 23.3 points per game during the playoffs — almost two points more than the regular season. Clippers’ screeners in pick-and-roll situations are scoring a playoff-best 1.46 points per possession, up from 1.21 during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data.
The pick-and-roll in particular has made the combination of Williams and Montrezl Harrell one of the NBA's most unstoppable.
That seemingly out-of-nowhere success is emblematic of their roster, as a whole, and is one reason why Rivers wants more time with this group.
“Everyone's got to stay in and stay engaged,” Rivers said of the challenge of an elimination game. “I've had teams honestly that didn't feel that, that fought a little bit and then said, ‘ugh.’ I've had teams that fought and stayed alive. It just depends on your group.