Golden State’s Draymond Green was on his way to the Warriors’ locker room Friday afternoon when he stopped short in the Staples Center hallway. Outside a small room where Clippers video coordinators toil over editing software, Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue welcomed Green, his longtime combatant, like an old friend.
It was only six years ago that the Warriors and Clippers ended their seven-game postseason series by shouting postgame invectives at each other in the same hallway. And it was only two years ago that Green faced Lue, as Cleveland’s coach, during a fourth consecutive NBA Finals.
Times have changed. The big stage the duo was accustomed to meeting on during their previous meetings was gone Friday. ESPN dropped the game from its national broadcast schedule, perhaps because the Warriors own the Western Conference’s worst record, or out of fear of a repeat from the Clippers and Warriors’ first meeting in October, a 19-point L.A. rout.
But someone forgot to tell the Warriors the matchup was supposed to be one-sided again. They pushed the Clippers from the start in an often uncomfortable night in Staples Center for the home team. The Clippers won 109-100, but for three quarters coach Doc Rivers’ team appeared to be stuck in the malaise that began during last weekend’s home split.
Asked during a postgame television interview where the Clippers could improve, Kawhi Leonard responded with: “Everything.”
At one point during the third quarter, a fan sitting behind a basket implored the team to “wake up!” The advice did not initially take: The Clippers trailed by 10 entering the final 12 minutes.
They were saved by not turning the ball over for the first 5:56 of the fourth quarter, a rarity on a night featuring many unforced errors. By no longer cutting their possessions short, the Clippers unspooled a 19-6 run during the same six-minute stretch that erased their double-digit deficit and created a three-point lead.
The lead was 104-100 with 1:16 to play when Leonard drove through the lane and unleashed a forceful dunk over Warriors center Omari Spellman, his second such slam of the night.
“He’s been doing it a lot lately,” Rivers said. “I think he’s in a far better place [with his health] than he was after Game 1. You can see it.”
Without Paul George, who missed the game and will not play Sunday either, because of a strained left hamstring suffered during practice Wednesday, Leonard had been the Clippers’ only offensive option to find success for much of the game, finishing with 36 points. In the fourth quarter he was finally joined by his teammates, on both ends, to close out a victory.
Golden State (9-31) managed 17 points in the fourth quarter, as its 20% three-point shooting eventually caught up to it. The Clippers’ league-leading bench went from being outscored by 15 points to roaring to life. Center Montrezl Harrell scored nine of his 11 points in the quarter and Lou Williams added nine of his 21.
The Warriors did not have the offensive firepower to make one last push. The injured backcourt of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry watched from the bench as Spellman and Glenn Robinson III each scored 17 points. They’re part of a rotation where young players have taken over in the wake of injuries.
Warriors rookies are averaging 25.3 points a game — 22.9 more than last season. And their players on two-way contracts entered the game scoring a league-high 580 points, more than double the amount scored by the next-highest team. Rivers called it “odd” to see the once-dynastic Warriors heading toward a top pick in the upcoming draft instead of a top seed in the West playoffs.
“It is odd honestly because they’ve been good for a long time and honestly even though we knew Klay was going to be out, most of us thought he’d be back by end of this year,” Rivers said. “Everyone, at least in our jobs, thought they’d still be really good and then when Steph goes down you know it’s gonna be one of those years.”
Rivers called his team’s 19 turnovers a “big concern.”
“It’s hard to win a game when you don’t give your offense a chance to get a shot off,” he said. “We shot 49% but there were 19 times we never got a shot at the basket. That’s a lot of points that go out the window for you.”
That his team struggled for three quarters, however, did not lead the coach to panic about where his team stands.
And on the opposite sideline, Warriors coach Steve Kerr — no stranger to coaching star-laden teams with huge postseason expectations — acknowledged before tipoff that midseason lulls can be expected from teams targeting the playoffs.
“I think they’re much further along than they probably want to admit or that anybody is really seeing,” Kerr said. “They’re playing for the playoffs and sometimes you just bide your time a little bit and lay in the weeds a little bit. But we know who they are and they’re going to be one of the teams to beat in the playoffs.”