There was reason for hope for the Golden State Warriors heading into Game 3.
Coming off a split in L.A., the Warriors were returning home where they could maybe ride the tidal wave of emotion supplied by the crowd to take a lead in the series and give themselves a fighting chance to pull off an upset. Hopefully, the Splash Brothers would come through and give them the boost they needed to overcome the Clippers' advantages.
Yet by the time they were down by 18 in the third quarter we had to accept three things, if we were even still in denial of them after the first half:
1. The best player in the series thus far has been Blake Griffin, who most of the Warriors' frontcourt defenders are completely incapable of stopping on any consistent basis. Draymond Green has done a great job on him, but even there Griffin has been good enough that he's hitting tough shots.
2. The Clippers, as a unit, are just the better team (when Andrew Bogut is injured).
3. As long as Griffin and Chris Paul are on the floor, the Warriors players need to play mistake-free basketball, the coaching staff has to hit all the right notes with how they manage the rotation and make in-game decisions, and the close calls have to go the Warriors' way.
And that's just when the Warriors are playing at home - given all that, a loss in Game 4 would probably be the last time we get to see them play in Oracle Arena this season.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News gave us the tl;dr version of all of that in the opening lines of his recap: "The Clippers are bigger and better than the Warriors and emphasize the first part, please...They were too small. They were too slow. They were too tentative for too long in this pivotal game."
That last sentence both acknowledges the team's gutsy comeback and the fact that it was woefully insufficient after almost 31 minutes of poor play. The optimists among us will disagree with that characterization of the game, but at the very least we can all agree that the Warriors' Game 3 performance just won't cut it if they hope to advance in the playoffs.
Why did the Warriors have to play like mad to get to a point where... they still lost? Because they were mauled inside. That's the story.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 25, 2014
Through the 5:30 mark in the third quarter when they were down 18 points, the Warriors had committed 16 turnovers which led to 23 Clippers points. Despite winning the rebounding battle for the game, they were getting beat on the offensive boards 12-9 - including seven for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan - leading to a 10-4 advantage for the Clippers in second chance points. And of course, the Warriors were shooting just 37.3% from the field, including 1-for-14 from the three point line.
The Warriors looked so clearly overmatched for so long compounded by their own boneheaded, fundamental mistakes that despite the final margin, there simply wasn't a feeling that they deserved to win Game 3 after getting so thoroughly outplayed for most of the game.
Attempting to single out individuals to blame for that loss is an exercise in futility, whether it be coaching, specific players at specific positions, or the officials as a unit - that was a team loss in which the Warriors got outplayed in every facet of the game for the majority of it.
Yes, it was nice to see them reverse that in the final 17 minutes to get to the point where Stephen Curry had the ball in his hands with a shot to win the game, but so much of the game's narrative was just so familiar and compounded by one of the league's best three point shooting teams struggling to shoot anything that it was hard to enjoy the finish - despondent is probably a far better word than angry or sad to describe the feeling after that game.
So where do the Warriors go from here?
The Warriors have to see this Game 4 as an elimination game, the final statement they can make about their season on their home floor in front of their raucous crowd. And it's not about the Warriors establishing themselves as the better team this season, yesterday, or next week - the Warriors only have to find a way to outplay the Clippers for the majority of 48 minutes, essentially flipping the breakdown of what we saw last night.
Even if they ultimately lose this series, there's sufficient reason to believe they can play well enough for long enough to at the very least beat the Clippers in Game 4 at home and extend the series.
That begins with the fact that they really did play well over the final 17 minutes of Game 3 when they went small with a lineup of Curry-Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes and David Lee splitting the rest of the minutes. During that time, they turned the ball over just once, had an offensive rebounding percentage of 45% compared to the Clippers' 15%, and held Jordan to just two rebounds after he had 20 in the first 30 minutes of the game.
It wasn't perfect basketball - they still shot a stunningly poor 5-for-17 from the three point line - but it was more than just heart: they executed every detail much more effectively in that final stretch of the game and the staff stuck with a lineup that worked. They did what they could control, which is about all we can ask of them.
Mark Jackson says he's considering putting Draymond Green into the starting lineup but isn't sure yet...— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) April 25, 2014
You can understand, then, why Jackson is considering starting Green and possibly going smaller for longer stretches of the game: at this point, Green has to be on the floor for this team to win whether he starts or not. And going smaller, which both spreads the Clippers out and adds an additional decision-maker to the offense, just makes sense offensively. Defensively, he's the team's best shot at guarding Griffin right now, as described by Grantland's Zach Lowe today.
Bogut had become Golden State’s primary Blake Griffin defender, and Griffin is just romping around in his absence. The Warriors have no real answer, but they need to try something else. Using Jermaine O’Neal sounds good in theory, but the Dubs’ starting lineup is an astounding minus-32 in just 34 minutes, and the strategy of having O’Neal shade away from DeAndre Jordan to sandwich Griffin just ain’t working...Trying Draymond Green in single coverage might work, and the Dubs probably need more Green in general. They’re plus-2 with Green on the floor so far, and plus-8 with the Green–David Lee combo. They can win this series only by spreading the Clippers thin.
Whatever they do, winning even just Game 4 is not about merely shifting the deck chairs - starting Green won't suddenly mitigate the types of mistakes they made in Game 3.
The Warriors' staff has to figure out how to manage the rotation and maximize these advantages - or maybe just minimize their own weaknesses - for the majority of 48 minutes; the Warriors' players have to figure out how to avoid succumbing to their own weaknesses. Thus far this series, they just haven't proven capable of doing either when Griffin and Paul are on the floor and it's costing them whether they lose by 40 on the road or by 2 at home.
Hope for winning this series might be dwindling; knowing that the Warriors can play as well as they did at the end of Game 3 both gives us hope for Game 4 and makes the first 30 minutes of Game 3 inexcusable: they can play well enough to compete in this series, but they can't seem to do it long enough to win consistently.
For more on this series, check out our Warriors-Clippers playoff series section.