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The Clippers punched the Warriors in the mouth, and it may have saved the season

The Clippers gave the Warriors more of a fight than anyone anticipated. That may ultimately pay dividends.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“The Clippers punched us in the mouth and woke us up.”

Kevon Looney, decked out in one of his endlessly stylish fits that somehow flies under the radar of NBA fashion connoisseurs, calmly spoke those words outside the Golden State Warriors locker room after their series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

“They showed us it’s not a cakewalk in the West,” he continued.

Two years ago, as the team blitzed through a weakened field, it was, indeed, a cakewalk.

Last year it wasn’t, and by the time the Warriors woke up, it was almost too late. They trailed by 17 after the first quarter of a win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Houston Rockets.

Somehow, someway, they survived.

They would not have survived that scenario this year. They’re another year older, another championship run more exhausted, another defensive lapse weaker. If a punch lands that flush later in the fight, they will wither, stumble with their footing, and crumple to the mat.

But they took it in the first round. Took it on the chin while they were fresh. And waltzed back to their corner.

The mood in the Warriors segment of the Staples Center was palpably different in the aftermath of Friday’s knockout punch than it was following Games 3 and 4.

Rebounding from their historic Game 2 collapse, the locker room in Game 3 was jovial and cocky - champions reminding the world of their stature and standing.

Game 4 was enthusiastically confident. They had a series lead that, to the outside world, was insurmountable - victory was on their doorstep, and all they had to do was fly home to Oakland and welcome it in.

Game 6 was different. It wasn’t joyous, per se. It wasn’t cocky, so much as quietly assured. Meaningfully confident. Holistically in control.

If Games 3 and 4 felt like achievements, Game 6 felt like a procedure. It was methodical, or at least the aftermath suggested as much.

The Warriors took the first punch, and whether they’ll admit it or not, doing so woke them up early enough to get out of bed. Golden State is the best team in the league, but that’s not nearly enough. Not this year, at least.

The Clippers, for all their admirable camaraderie, boundless energy, and fearless confidence, were not good enough to land a finishing blow. That never felt like a real possibility.

But by ringing the Warriors’ bell as thoroughly and cleanly as they did, they may have kept Golden State from dropping their hands against Houston.

The vibe was omnipotent backstage. They were going to the corner between rounds, not celebrating a victory.

Round two begins less than 36 hours after the Warriors will touch down in Oakland, but now that they’re up, that works. No more waiting around. Sunday is another opportunity.

Or as Looney said, “I like playing games. I’d rather play games than practice.”

They’ll get to play those games, and they’ll get to play them soon.

And unlike last year, they’ve taken their punch before those games.

That just may make a difference.

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