Thinking big, the Clippers went small.
Seeking a spark, they removed a 7-foot-1 center for a 6-9 reserve forward, and the result in Game 4 was their most consistent performance of the playoffs. There was more shooting, more spacing, more of a possibility that they could even their first-round series against the Golden State Warriors.
But there was no back-slapping as they left the Staples Center court Sunday afternoon. The window of opportunity to hurt an opponent the caliber of the Warriors is minuscule. And by missing their chances, the Clippers have dug themselves into a hole that appears huge.
Following a 113-105 loss, the Clippers trail 3-1 in their best-of-seven series. A Wednesday Game 5 at Oakland’s Oracle Arena looms.
“We wish we could get it back,” said JaMychal Green, the backup forward thrust into the starting lineup in place of Ivica Zubac. “I don’t know what we’d do differently but, man, we need those possessions, need to get stops and we needed this game.”
For stretches, it looked as though it would be theirs, with their changed lineup and youngest players the reasons why.
Patrick Beverley had frustrated Golden State’s Kevin Durant during key moments early in this series, but Green is a half-foot taller and drew the assignment from tip-off Sunday. On offense, he spent most of his time near the three-point line, dragging Warriors center Andrew Bogut out of the Clippers’ driving lanes in the process.
The Clippers outscored Golden State by nine points during Green’s 21 minutes, making him one of only two Clippers to produce a positive plus-minus rating.
Clippers reserve Lou Williams called the shift a “positive adjustment.”
“It clearly helped,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Green, who finished with six points, two rebounds and a plus-nine rating, wasn’t the only contributor to emerge from out of the spotlight.
Clippers rookies combined for 41 points. Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was hottest in the first quarter, when he scored 14 points of his team-high 25 points — the most ever by a Clippers rookie in the postseason. Reserve Jerome Robinson, who’d spent much of the season in the G League because of a foot injury and a logjam ahead of him in the rotation, was a surprise catalyst during an 11-0 second-quarter run that tied the score at 35. He finished with seven points. A pair of three-pointers by Landry Shamet, who had nine points, pushed the Clippers ahead by two with 5:50 to play in the third quarter, then three points with 4:29 left.
When Danilo Gallinari passed up a three-pointer and caught the Warriors out of position with a pass to Montrezl Harrell for a wide-open dunk, the Clippers led by five with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“This team is just looking for a crack in the opening for us to kind of relax and lay down just like in Game 2,” Durant said. “But they don’t stop, man. They’re one of those teams, they make you feel them all game and even when you go home after the game, you’re going to be thinking about them because they’re tough.”
The Warriors are heading home to the Bay Area thinking about closing out the series because of how quickly they can turn an opponent’s encouragement to discouragement.
The Warriors awoke after falling behind by five, ripping off an 8-0 run. Stephen Curry, saddled with foul trouble, capped the stretch with his first three-pointer after missing seven attempts. From his courtside seat directly across from the Clippers’ bench, Golden State general manager Bob Myers nodded his approval.
The Warriors opened the fourth quarter using a lineup that featured neither Durant nor Curry, yet extended their lead from three to six. By emerging from that nearly four-minute stretch unscathed, Golden State set itself up for a fourth quarter in which its lead was threatened but never toppled.
"They kind of took it to us in that third quarter," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "Once that happened, I thought that's when our guys engaged."
Klay Thompson scored 17 of his 32 points in the first quarter and credited his hot start to an impromptu swim Saturday in the Pacific Ocean that cleared his head. Durant had 33 points. There is only so much that can be done to contain either star when they find a rhythm. Yet the Clippers’ mistakes amounted to a missed chance. They missed eight of 32 free throws and committed eight of their 10 turnovers during the second half.
Trailing by eight with 2:08 to play, Williams drove to his right after getting switched onto the defense of Durant, whose hose-length arms forced a hasty pass right to Curry. Fifteen seconds later, Durant caught a pass at the top of the three-point arc. He buried the shot for an 11-point lead, and perhaps the Clippers’ last hope of putting a scare into Golden State in this series.
“Coming down the stretch, we didn’t make the necessary plays needed,” Williams said.
He and Gallinari, the team’s leading scorers, made a combined seven of 30 shots.