The Golden State Warriors made it abundantly clear what they’re capable of when focused and playing with intensity in Game Three against the Los Angeles Clippers. Given the Warriors run of success that’s not a huge surprise coming off Golden State’s Game Two collapse. Up by 31 on their home floor, Golden State watched the Clippers roar back to win 135-131 in what is the biggest comeback in NBA playoff history. The mood in the Warriors’ locker room after the game wasn’t surprise or dejection–it was anger that they let an overmatched team ‘off the hook’ so easily. At that point, every expectation was that Golden State would come out swinging in Game Three.
Game Three was Golden State at their dominant best. Kevin Durant scored 38, Stephen Curry added 21 and the Warriors were clearly the best team on the floor in every phase of the game. Golden State shot 54.8% from the field while holding the Clippers to 37.2%. The Warriors shot 42.9% from three point range and limited the Clippers to 21.9%. The game was never close and the Warriors simply dominated wire to wire. Game Four is back at the Staples Center with an almost identical pointspread and the question now is ‘how will the Clippers respond?’
A more salient question might be ‘does it matter?’. That depends on which Golden State team shows up. If the Warriors come out with the same focus they need in Game Three the answer is ‘probably not’. When Golden State is playing that well individually and as a team they’re borderline unstoppable. If they show up unfocused and lacking intensity it becomes a different matter entirely.
It’s really not possible to find a situational pointspread category in which Golden State did well this season. That has as much to do with their status as a ‘public’ team and the resulting pointspread inflation as it does with any perception that their quality of play was ‘down’ this year. The reality is that the Warriors were in the position that the regular season was a mere formality. They did what they had to do and everyone (with the exception of DeMarcus Cousins) is healthy entering the playoffs. An occasional lack of focus and intensity has to be expected. One problem that Golden State is having is that due to their remarkable run of success the NBA playoffs at times becomes an ‘afterthought’ and a formality to get to the Finals.
Golden State is looking for their fourth title in five years and their fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals. In 2017, they obliterated the competition sweeping the first three rounds and dropping only one game to Cleveland in the finals in one of the most dominant playoff performances in NBA history. In every other year, however, there’s been one series that has been much closer than it should have been. Last year, they needed 7 to beat Houston in the Western Conference Finals. In 2016, they needed 7 to beat Oklahoma City in the Conference Finals. In 2015, they were taken to six games in the Conference Semifinals by Memphis.
It’s doubtful that the Clippers can play the role of the ‘thorn in the Warriors’ side’ this season. The aforementioned teams had either a dominant superstar or a nasty defenses. The Clippers really has neither. Golden State looked sharp down the stretch in the regular season due in large part to the challenge provided by the Denver Nuggets. More appropriately, you could say that the Warriors benefited from the focus required to fend off the feisty Nuggets. Prior to an absolutely meaningless season ending game in Memphis, the Warriors won 11 of 13 SU. The Clippers, meanwhile, lost three of their last four in the regular season and even with their Game 2 comeback win are on a 2-5 SU/1-6 ATS run. The Game 2 cover ended a five game pointspread losing streak.
The Clippers have fared very poorly this season when stepping up in class. Their first pointspread role is in that of the underdog where they are 17-24-1 ATS. Their SU record in the role is 14-28 which gives us some content that they didn’t lose and cover very often. They were even worse as a home dog going 3-7 SU/ATS. It’s a good sign when a team covers a lot of games as an underdog even though they lose straight up. It’s a sign that the effort is there against superior teams. The opposite is a very bad sign and suggests that if they’re not in a position to win they pack it in for the night. The Warriors have had little trouble against the Clippers in recent years and particularly at the Staples Center where they’ve gone 6-1 SU/ATS. The Clippers deserve credit for completing their Game 2 comeback but that will likely be their ‘best shot’ for this series. Some defensive intensity is necessary to beat Golden State and that’s not likely from a Clippers team that finished #25 in scoring defense during the regular season and has the worst scoring defense among playoff teams to date in the postseason.