The end-game controversy is likely what everyone will be talking about when reflecting on Game 3 of Clippers-Warriors, but for Clippers fan, a glimpse of the future, a bright one, was on full display tonight.
For the first time all season, it felt like the Clippers had an official “Big 3″. Since 2008, that phrase has been oft overused, but it perfectly represents what the Clippers have, which was surely Doc Rivers’ vision when he agreed to coach the job.
Blake Griffin set the tempo for others to follow, similar to game 2. That’s his job now as the offense runs through him as much as it does Chris Paul. And tonight, abusing David Lee in the process each chance he got, Griffin reminded the general public of the leap he took during the regular season, jumping from All-Star to superstar. His 32 points and 8 rebounds are beginning to feel routine, ie. a 27-7-7 game from Lebron James or Kevin Durant scoring 38 on the opposition.
Chris Paul, the presumed alpha dog on the team, chose his spots while focusing on the defensive end of the floor, helping keep Steph Curry from exploding when the game got tight. Gone are the days where he was to carry the offense all while getting everyone else involved in the game. And with the game on the line, Paul came through big, opposite of his game 1 experience, scoring 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, all while holding his own against Curry on the last shot of the game, one that would’ve won it for the Warriors in a heartbreaking fashion.
With those two dominating on offense, Jordan’s impact came on the boards and on the defensive end, two facets that were clear problems for the forward just a year ago. Grabbing a Clippers playoff game-high 22 rebounds, Jordan dominated in the manner predicted prior to the beginning of the series. With each rebound, the presence of Andrew Bogut, or the lack of, amplified. No one on the team can keep Jordan off the glass, proving that by leading the league in total rebounds. When the Warriors players attempt to box Jordan out, his athleticism negates their position, a true dilemma for the Warriors, but a way to show the true importance of DAJ. On defense, he looked every bit of the player who deserved to be third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. There were blocks; five to be exact. There was shot intimidation factor. There were even a few Roy Hibbert-esque verticality moments. Considering where Jordan has come from as a player, the welcome improvement is a site to see, keeping the room for growth open as he continues to thrive under Rivers.
Isn’t this what we all dreamed for? It took a first-round exit last season and moving in an opposite direction of Vinny Del Negro, but the image that Rivers and co. promised is finally coming into fruition. Call it peaking at the right moment, but Rivers’ patience with the group, breaking down their poor habits and reforming them into positives, is paying it’s benefits at all the right times.
The rest of the Clippers? With so much depth on the team, who shows up and impacts the game shifts on a nightly basis, with the only consistent entity being J.J. Redick. In game 2, Hedo Turkoglu and Danny Granger were the complimentary sides to the Big 3’s main dish. Tonight, that honor belonged to Jamal Crawford who played his first good game of the playoffs. In a timely manner, Crawford did his best job maintaining balance between the starting and reserve unit. The rest of the team? Offensively, they were a wash, but in droves, the group took turns swarming on defense.
A combination of these four factors had the Clippers looking like the team we all imagined they could be. And yet, they only won by two points.
There are still some issues: defending the fast-break, rotations on defense, etc., but the Warriors just look like a determined team. Behind Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, every Clippers run was greeted by a Warriors run. Thompson continued to play well and, when it matters, Curry put the team on his back. There was no foul trouble to keep Thompson or Andre Iguodala out the game for extended minutes this time and it showed while Draymond Green continued to wreck havoc on the Clippers in every way possible.
And yet, the Warriors still seemed mightily outmatched.
Because they are. In the series preview, one thing I noted was how the Clippers could give the Warriors a lot of confidence if they let the feisty underdogs win a game Then Game 1 happened. From there, this group had the mindset that they could win, regardless of the context that was connected to Game 2. Mentally breaking doesn’t seem possible for this team. Is it an embodiment of their head coach? Possible, but when fear isn’t in the equation, breakdowns don’t often happen.
With Game 4 up next, the Clippers could put themselves in prime position, looking ahead to the second round. A win in Oakland would give Griffin and company a chance to close out in five games, giving the group extra time to work out kinks and rest players dealing with minuscule injuries (Paul, Crawford, Barnes).
Finishing early is what elite teams do over undeserving teams. The Warriors won’t lie down. This isn’t that type of group and Mark Jackson would never let that happen. But they know the Clippers are the better team. The Clippers know the Clippers are the better team. Now it’s time for them to take it to the next level by finishing this series off quick and easy.