It’s not too difficult to figure out what’s plaguing the Golden State Warriors as their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers drags on to surprising lengths. According to Klay Thompson, the champs were already looking forward to the Rockets, assuming a tidy Game 5 win. According to Kevin Durant, they relaxed too much. According to Draymond Green, he didn’t bring the requisite defensive intensity to get his teammates to try hard. According to their opponent Lou Williams, “It’s their mistake for looking ahead. So that’s on them.” All four players are right, and the problems they raise share a common root: effort.
However, what’s weird about the Clips’ 129-121 win Thursday night in Oakland is that it’s the second time in five games that L.A. has punked Golden State on its home court, overcoming superior talent by simply playing harder. One loss in a first-round series is forgivable for a four-time defending conference champion, but a pair of consecutive home losses speaks to a deeper malaise.
Three games ago, the Clippers rallied back from a 31-point third-quarter deficit to punk Golden State at home in humiliating fashion. After that ass-kicking, the Warriors made the same sorts of prognoses they did last night, and yet they allowed themselves to relax again. The Warriors got what they deserved and were alive in the next two games, but unlike previous times, they didn’t use that embarrassment as motivation to remove all doubt.
Steve Kerr’s diagnosis of the Game 5 loss aligned with what his players said. “It’s just defense,” he said. “We just did not defend.” Williams buried Golden State in both Games 2 and 5, and while stopping him and his fellow super-sub Montrezl Harrell is easier said than done, the Clippers didn’t run anything complicated. The pair spent most of the fourth quarter running pick-and-rolls and other little two-man actions to either get Williams some space or get Harrell the ball with momentum.
There’s certainly something to be said about the weird gumminess of the Warriors’ late-game offense, too. Even if Kevin Durant is scoring 45, Steph Curry should be taking more than 15 shots in a closeout game. The workload split wouldn’t have been an issue if the Warriors could defend worth a damn in the second half. While the odd hesitancy shown by the Warriors in crunch time was reminiscent of their ugly series against the Rockets last year, the team can clearly back its way into wins even if everything’s not working.
But it doesn’t work every time, as the Clippers have shown, and no matter how talented the Warriors are, they’ll need to play harder if they want a three-peat. They still have two chances to end this, and no matter how uncharacteristic Golden State’s two home playoff losses are, the team will be rightly favored in every playoff series up through the Finals.
The question is how much these extra games will take out of them. While this first-round series shouldn’t end in another 3-1 upset, the Rockets are no easy foes. If the Denver Nuggets win tonight, the Warriors will have had the longest first-round series of the entire playoffs, which puts them behind the field on rest, along with an injury to DeMarcus Cousins. The scary thing is, they’re so good that it might not end up mattering.