The Clippers’ depth and locker-room cohesion helped upend low expectations and overcome dramatic roster turnover, but without any current or former All-Stars, there was an expectation that what propelled them throughout the winter would only go so far in a best-of-seven series against the loaded Warriors. That expectation has played out as expected. Following their 113-105 victory Sunday at Staples Center, Golden State holds a 3-1 lead entering Game 5 on Wednesday in Oakland.
Yet several within the Clippers have considered this the best imaginable matchup too, for one forward-looking reason.
Facing the dynastic Warriors, winners of three of the last four NBA championships, and playing in Oracle Arena’s crucible atmosphere, rookie guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Jerome Robinson and 22-year-old center Ivica Zubac have received an invaluable education during their first career postseason.
“They’re young guys that we threw into the fire,” veteran Clippers guard Lou Williams said.
That introduction to playoff basketball has proved alternately revealing, humbling and encouraging.
Warriors star Kevin Durant has talked up and can relate to the young Clippers.
In 2010, his third season, Durant and Oklahoma City teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden made their playoff debuts against a top-seeded Lakers team en route to the NBA championship. Oklahoma City reached the Western Conference finals the following season and the NBA finals a year after that.
“You just learn how to play, you learn what focus and preparation is at this level, especially in playoffs, playing a team over and over again,” Durant said. “So, that work going into the  summer was different, so I’m sure it’s going to be the same for these young guys.”
Gilgeous-Alexander played with “no fear,” Durant said, while scoring 25 points, a Clippers rookie playoff record.
“For a rookie to come in and attack with confidence the way he did, that shows you what he’s about,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I thought he was great.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet -- who made the go-ahead three-pointer late in Game 2’s 31-point comeback victory -- and Robinson are each under contracts guaranteed for two seasons, with the team holding the option to add the third and fourth years. Zubac can become a restricted free agent this season. The value of their postseason performances could be revealed as soon as this summer when free agency opens.
Zubac, a starter during the series’ first three games, did not play in Game 4 as Rivers opted for a smaller lineup. JaMychal Green, a 6-foot-9 backup forward, was inserted at center and Robinson, who’d played 15 total minutes during the three previous games, saw his role increased as part of a guard-heavy bench unit.
“It was just getting lost in the moment and just playing,” Robinson said. “Not thinking much. I messed up as soon as I got in and Lou was like, ‘Let’s go man, we don’t got time for that.’”
Robinson, who has worked this season to be less hesitant to shoot open shots, made two of his three attempts.
“The one thing you like about Jerome is if he’s open he’s going to shoot it,” Rivers said. “You know, I know that sounds silly but there’s a lot of people who won’t and Jerome is not one of those. That’s why we put him in.”
Clippers general manager believes in team’s long-term future
The decision of Clippers general manager Michael Winger to remove himself as a candidate for Minnesota’s vacant president of basketball operations job was driven by a desire to see whether the Clippers’ plan of building a long-term contender can come to fruition.
The Timberwolves’ job would have represented a promotion for Winger but he informed the team Saturday he would not interview.
“I believe in our players, our staff, ownership and our vision,” Winger said during the Clippers’ Game 4 loss. “We are building something truly special in L.A., and I want to be part of the group that rewards our loyal and passionate fans.”
President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank hired Winger from Oklahoma City in 2017 amid the Clippers’ drastic overhaul of its front office. Assistant general managers Mark Hughes and Trent Redden and consultant Jerry West were hired the same summer. The Clippers have traded their highest-scoring player each of the last two seasons in exchange for multiple draft picks and other players and freed enough room under the salary cap in the process to sign one, and perhaps two, free agents this summer to maximum-salary contracts.
Redden continues to be courted by New Orleans’ new president of basketball operations, David Griffin, for its general manager position. Redden worked under Griffin in Cleveland during the Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA championship season.