Faced with lackluster defensive effort and a strong-willed opponent in a potential closeout game, Steve Kerr decided to break the glass and follow the standard emergency procedures.
The Golden State Warriors’ coach played Kevin Durant 42 minutes, the all-star forward’s heaviest load since January. And, with a close game in the balance, he turned to the “Hamptons Five” — the lethal finishing lineup that has dependably run everybody off the court the past two years.
Yet those surefire moves didn’t pay off, as the L.A. Clippers scored a surprising 129-121 road win on Wednesday to force Game 6 back at the Staples Center on Friday. Durant delivered a playoff career-high 45 points in his extended run, but the Warriors squandered the effort by failing to get stops down the stretch. With the game tied at 116 with just over three minutes remaining, Lou Williams led the Clippers on a 10-2 push against the Warriors’ most-tested defensive group.
The unexpected home loss led the defending champs to cop to complacency and inattentiveness, as their long-anticipated rematch with the Houston Rockets was temporarily put on hold.
“I was,” Klay Thompson admitted, when asked whether the Warriors were guilty of looking ahead to the second round. “I thought we were going to come out and win tonight, but sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. [The Clippers] have been pesky, they’ve been tough. But now it’s time to do what we do.”
With all due respect, that time has already passed. The Warriors, at their peak, never would have been forced to a Game 5 against an eight seed, much less a Game 6. Indeed, Golden State has won seven of its eight playoff series since Durant’s 2016 arrival in five or fewer games.
What’s more, they have been virtually unbeatable at home in the playoffs during Kerr’s five-year tenure: 9-2 in 2015, 11-3 in 2016, 9-0 in 2017, and 10-1 in 2018. This year, they are off to a 1-2 start at Oracle Arena, and both losses were baffling indications of a team that’s less focused than past iterations.
In Game 2, the Warriors took their feet off the gas and set an NBA playoff record by blowing a 31-point lead. In Game 5, they simply didn’t provide enough resistance from start to finish, looking content to trade baskets and lose in a shootout. They conceded 135 points in Game 2, the most in a home playoff game during Kerr’s tenure. Remarkably, Game 5′s 129 points were the second-most.
While Golden State still has two shots to close out L.A., those are alarming data points. The Rockets’ offense was considerably better than the Clippers’ offense this season, and Houston managed to push Golden State to seven games last year despite a pair of blowout losses at Oracle. Plus, the Rockets are currently resting up after eliminating the Utah Jazz in five games earlier Wednesday.
When one reporter asked Kerr about the Warriors’ identity, he appeared to chafe at the question.
“What's the identity of our club? Back-to-back champions,” Kerr said. “We're really good. I mean, we're hanging banners. What's our identity? We play fast. We play defense. I don't know. Maybe we should do an instructional video later and we'll send it to you.”
The Warriors have certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, and no one should fault them for feeling a bit indignant when their every loss is dissected and their every misstep is magnified.
Their ceiling remains considerably higher than any of their opponent’s when they are locked in, and their stars are mostly untroubled by the bouts of inconsistency.
“When we get a nice lead, we just tend to relax a little bit,” Durant said. “[The Clippers] don’t have any pressure from the start to the finish, especially as the eight seed. They’re coming out with some confidence already and we kind of kept the door open with our [lack of] intensity to start the game.”
Stephen Curry, who scored 24 points in 38 minutes, added that there was “no panic at all.” Even so, the two-time MVP attempted just 15 shots, and the Warriors struggled to free him from the Clippers’ unconventional perimeter pressure defense. Getting greater involvement and impact from Curry, who has been unusually quiet for three straight games, will be crucial in Game 6 and beyond.
“We have to realize that this year’s different,” Curry said. “There are different challenges. Whether it’s human nature, whether it’s talent of the competition we’re playing, the way the league’s changed with different lineups out there — everything’s different, and you have to adapt. Resiliency, we talk about that all the time. It should be there on Friday.”
Through five games, the Warriors have displayed one glaring difference and, with apologies to Kerr, it is a matter of identity. Since Durant’s arrival, they have consistently made the playoff experience — winning the matchup battles, managing a series, taking care of home-court — look easier than any team from the past 15 years, if not longer.
This year’s Warriors, though, have already displayed an unnerving tendency to make their postseason lives more difficult than necessary.