For all they knew, it might have been their only chance to show the disbelieving world they were more than a pesky gnat destined to be swatted away while the Golden State Warriors rolled to a third consecutive NBA title, but the Clippers had let that chance slip away.
It wasn’t like them to waste those opportunities. They had developed an uncanny resilience and collectively embraced the role of fighters who never gave up, no matter the circumstances in a game or in their season.
“That is in our DNA,” forward Danilo Gallinari said.
But when the Warriors left the door open a crack in the teams’ playoff opener by committing 21 turnovers, the Clippers didn’t make them pay. The Clippers slammed the door shut on their own fingers by scoring only 15 points off those turnovers, and that bothered them for the next two days.
It stung them deeply because they felt they hadn’t played to their hard-working and opportunistic identity, a team that could build something worth admiring while aiming for the shining future that has always been beyond the franchise’s reach. And it hurt because they couldn’t be sure they’d get more gifts from the Warriors, who acknowledged their 17-point victory in Game 1 hadn’t been easy and vowed to clean things up in Game 2.
The Warriors left the door open again Monday, but the gap was invisible to everyone but the Clippers. This time they barged through that door and ripped it off its hinges, capitalizing on the Warriors’ misfortunes, miscues and inexcusable third-quarter letup to erase a 31-point deficit and stage the biggest playoff rally in NBA history.
“That’s a record we didn’t necessarily want to have but we’ll take it,” a smiling Lou Williams said after his 29-point spree in the second half fueled the Clippers’ unlikely 135-131 comeback and reaffirmed who they are while also hinting at how much more they might become.
On Monday, the Clippers scored 34 points off 22 turnovers, a significant improvement from their Game 1 performance. They turned the ball over 20 times but limited the Warriors to 17 points, another improvement from giving up 22 points off 19 turnovers in the opener.
Also crucial was that the Clippers found a way to soften Stephen Curry’s impact after his 38-point extravaganza in the opener. He had put on another spectacular shooting display Monday to lead both teams in scoring at the half with 22 points, but he got his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter and came out of the game with 8 minutes 39 seconds left and Golden State up by 28 points.
The Warriors pushed their lead to 94-63 with 7:31 left in the third quarter but they soon began to sit back. Forced to adjust after they lost starting center DeMarcus Cousins to a thigh injury less than four minutes into the game, they had to draw up new plans when Curry got that fourth foul. Things began to unravel. They became less aggressive and less engaged, and they had no answer for Williams, who finished with 36 points.
Until then, the Clippers hadn’t been paying much attention to the scoreboard. They were more concerned with simply saving face.
“You don’t want to be the group of guys being blasted on national television,” Williams said.
Soon, they weren’t being blasted anymore.
“Our whole rotation changes. A lot of little things that end up giving them confidence,” Curry said. “That snowball effect.”
Curry didn’t come back until 13.5 seconds remained in the third quarter. By then, the Clippers had whittled the lead down to 18 points, a formidable margin but, as it played out, not an impossible one. Curry had only seven points in the second half and committed all four of his turnovers in the final 24 minutes.
“He got in foul trouble. Let’s be honest. So he wasn’t on the floor. That’s the best defense that you can possibly have on him,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Then I thought on the other end, we involved him in a lot of plays. I didn’t think we did that in the first game. I thought he was fresh on offense because he didn’t have a lot to do on defense. I thought we did a better job there.”
Being physical against forward Kevin Durant again paid dividends for the Clippers. He had 21 points, but 11 resulted from free throws. He took only eight shots, making five, and turned the ball over nine times before he fouled out with 1:21 left in the fourth quarter and the score tied 128-128. That was the second time he wasn’t around for the end, after he and Clippers guard Patrick Beverley got double technicals in Game 1.
“He had a tough night,” Kerr said of Durant.
There was a lot of that going around among the Warriors.
“For 6½ quarters we played amazing. Had a 31-point lead. The wheels fell off,” Curry said. “I know we can get it back.”