Reaching the top of the NBA mountain for the first time in 2015 was novel and fun for the Golden State Warriors and coach Steve Kerr. But then came the business of staying on top with a changing cast, which has had its challenges.
“For me, these last two years have felt different than the first three,” Kerr said. “The first three felt a lot fresher. Felt like we were on the climb and we were on the cusp of something even after winning our first one. That next year we won 73 games, it was a joyride. The following year, Kevin [Durant] arrives. Got a new toy.
“Everything was just sort of new and fresh, and these last two years, no question, have been arduous. There’s no other way to put it. It gets more difficult as you go.”
Whatever problems they’ve faced along the way were banished to their past on Saturday, when they opened pursuit of a third straight championship and fourth in five seasons with a 121-104 victory over the stubborn but not-nearly-good-enough Clippers at a rollicking Oracle Arena.
Only the physicality that allowed Montrezl Harrell to score 26 points and the opportunities seized by Lou Williams in scoring 25 points — both of them off the bench — seemed to give the Warriors any trouble, but Golden State had the depth and determination to shrug that off with a minimum of anxiety. And when Durant took Patrick Beverley’s trash-talk bait and jawed back at the Clippers’ gregarious guard and both were ejected with 4:41 left in the fourth quarter, Durant was amused rather than upset. Even Kerr had to smile.
“You cannot take the bait because that’s a bad trade for us,” Kerr said. “The Clippers have made a lot of good trades this year. That was maybe the best.”
But it happened too late to help the Clippers, who outscored the Warriors in only the fourth quarter. Durant, who had 23 points, complimented Beverley’s feistiness. “I’ve been playing against Pat Bev since he was at Arkansas. So I kind of know what he brings,” Durant said. “He’s a Chicago kid, grew up and raised in the Chicago area. He has a different type of grit and I can appreciate that about him. And you know what he’s going to bring to the table, his physicality, mucking up the game a little bit with his physicality, his talking , everything. That’s what he brings to each team he plays with. That’s his identity and they support him with the Clippers. I know that coming into the series. I thought it was fun tonight.”
For the Warriors, yes. For the Clippers, maybe not so much.
This might have been their best shot to beat Golden State, with DeMarcus Cousins largely ineffective in his playoff debut — he fouled out in the fourth quarter — and the Warriors a little too ramped up before the home crowd in the early minutes. Golden State committed seven turnovers in the first quarter, included four by Draymond Green, and turned the ball over 21 times but still the Clippers couldn’t capitalize while being outrebounded 53-40 and outshot.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game his team wasn’t paying attention to being 100-to-1 underdogs and called the Warriors “one of the great teams.” They would be who they have been all season, he said, scrappy and team-oriented and reliant on each other instead of on a superstar because they have no superstars, and that would have to be enough. That worked until now, until they faced a team with superstars everywhere on the floor.
The problem with being a team that doesn’t have a superstar was evident on Saturday, when Stephen Curry stepped up for Golden State with 38 points and 15 rebounds and the Clippers couldn’t come close to stopping them. The only way Golden State might lose a game or two in this series is by beating itself. The Clippers didn’t give enough reason to believe they can beat Golden State on their own merit. "Curry has destroyed us all year. He really has," Rivers said.
Durant called his team’s performance “a solid first game,” but judged that the Warriors were far from their best. “There was a lot of excitement in the building, especially in the locker room,” he said. “You’ve got some guys it’s their first time [in the playoffs]. We had 22 turnovers, we can’t have that going forward. I think more than anything that was just over-excited to play to start the game. We had six turnovers to start the first quarter and you still end up winning by 17 and they only had three more shots than us. We controlled that, but if we have 21 turnovers again, in the playoffs, I think it will be a tougher game for us.”
The Clippers knew they'd have to play a perfect game to be competitive. They fell far short on a night the Warriors weren't in peak form. They might not get another chance to bring the champions down.