After eight months and 86 games together, Doc Rivers knew his team.
But in 20 seasons as an NBA coach, he’s learned to never assume. Elimination games can reveal unforeseen things, and the Clippers’ coach had witnessed strong teams reach their breaking point and underdogs claw and scrape.
And so, he was one of several Clippers looking Wednesday night for different signs to gauge their readiness in the hours and minutes before Game 5 at Oracle Arena. Rookie guard Landry Shamet watched teammate Patrick Beverley, whose energy has been a reliable barometer all season. Assistants waited to sense an edge, that unquantifiable but undeniable factor. Rivers wanted to see how the players meshed within the team’s game plan.
But even though he had no way of knowing whether Wednesday would lead to the end, or another game, Rivers did offer a prediction, hours before tipoff.
“We’ll be ready,” he said.
By any measure, they were.
What Beverley and Danilo Gallinari started, Lou Williams ended. And with that, this series has not ended, not yet, not after a 129-121 victory that has forced a Game 6 Friday in Los Angeles. The Warriors’ lead in the series has been trimmed to 3-2.
“I think this game gives us confidence moreso than the comeback game,” reserve Garrett Temple said, referencing the team’s 31-point comeback in Game 2.
Golden State’s Kevin Durant scored a game-high 45 points, Stephen Curry had 24 and Klay Thompson 22. The Warriors had been 6-0 this season when that trio combined for 90-plus points, but the first blemish came Wednesday.
Williams scored 33 points off the bench, Gallinari had 26 and Beverley had 17 points in the victory.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr summed up his team’s defensive effort as “not good.”
“I didn’t have any doubts about this team, that we come out ready every time,” Gallinari said. “We want to win anytime. It doesn’t matter what the record is, what the series is.”
Gallinari, who had spent the series’ first four games broadsided by criticism after making seven of his 25 three-pointers, missed his first three threes Wednesday, but mixed in free throws, drives and, eventually, cathartic back-to-back shots from behind the arc to score 10 first-quarter points and get in rhythm.
Beverley, a thorn defensively to Golden State to start the playoffs, did his best to extend them on offense with nine rebounds, three assists, zero turnovers and 14 points — his highest-scoring half ever in the playoffs.
After the Warriors called a timeout trailing by 15 points early in the third quarter, Beverley curled flexed biceps toward his hips and puffed out his chest while skipping into the Clippers’ huddle. Yet a double-digit lead against Golden State guarantees nothing, and after JaMychal Green, who had started at center in place of Ivica Zubac for a second consecutive game, was called for his fourth foul with 7:22 remaining, the Warriors began a 21-12 run to cut the lead to three after free throws by Durant with less than two minutes remaining.
Ending quarters has been a struggle, but doubled Durant early during the quarter’s final possessions and forced his teammates’ shots to beat them. When they couldn’t, they entered the final quarter with 104 points, leading by 10 – only the third time in Kerr’s four seasons that his team had allowed 100 or more points through three quarters, according to ESPN.
A three-pointer by Thompson cut the Warriors’ deficit to 116-114 with less than four minutes remaining and after a missed 28-footer by Beverley, Durant’s cut to the hoop was rewarded with a pass and dunk.
It was 49 seconds later when Durant dunked and the 47-year-old arena rattled from the vibrations of a crowd gone mad.
The only person capable of quieting the mob was Williams, who is not a starter but is one of the game’s best finishers.
“He believes he’s a closer,” Rivers said. “He is one.”
He scored nine consecutive points to give the Clippers a 125-118 lead with less than two minutes remaining, an outburst enough to offset the foul-out of Green, whose insertion in the lineup in Game 4 brought immediate results, in the fourth quarter.
“We controlled the game,” Shamet said to teammate Ty Wallace as they dressed afterward, as Wallace nodded. “The whole game.”