Slipping down a San Francisco baseline past Phoenix’s Chris Paul late Monday, Stephen Curry claimed a basket and the final word.
“This ain’t 2014 no more,” the Golden State star told his longtime combatant as cameras rolled.
Paul later claimed he didn’t know the reference, but on his podcast, Curry’s Warriors teammate Draymond Green explained its latent meaning — that it had been that long since Paul could be considered the better player.
The remark was uttered inside Chase Center. It was felt in the hearts of the Clippers.
Nine years ago, headlined by Paul at point guard, the Clippers were ascendant. Even fallout from former owner Donald Sterling’s suspension on the eve of the postseason was not enough to stop them from winning a first-round series against Curry and Golden State.
But while the Clippers never get over the postseason hump, Golden State has summited the NBA’s mountaintop four times since. The 2014 series against Paul and the Clippers remains the last seven-game series lost by the Warriors to a Western Conference opponent. Even amid a Jekyll and Hyde 2022-23 season in which the Warriors are 29-7 at home and entered Wednesday 7-26 on the road, the Warriors remain the standard against which all West challengers are measured, a video game’s final boss lurking behind Curry’s ever-present potential for an offensive eruption.
If the teams’ meeting Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena represented a psychic test it was also, more importantly, a pragmatic one.
With the teams entering with identical records and the Clippers needing a win to keep alive hopes of claiming a tiebreaker, Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole arrived as the perfect stress test to gauge whether the Clippers, and the improved defense that underpinned their three-game winning streak, were for real.
They answered with a 134-126 victory, a fourth straight win in which Kawhi Leonard and coach Tyronn Lue lauded the team’s composure amid Curry’s one-man show as he finished with 50 points while making 20 of 28 shots, including eight three-pointers.
“This isn’t my first time seeing [Steph] explode like that in a quarter,” Leonard said. “Being there before, it kind of helps you stay focused on the moment.”
In their five-game losing streak that began after last month’s All-Star break, surefire wins had disappeared in clutch moments. They’ve flipped that to start a new streak. The Clippers committed only one turnover in the second half. They grabbed 16 offensive rebounds. Russell Westbrook played perhaps his most disciplined game of his Clippers tenure, with zero turnovers.
The win separated the Clippers (37-33) and Warriors (36-34) in the standings and displayed yet again the positive returns from a closing lineup pairing Eric Gordon (16 points) and Terance Mann (17 points) alongside starters Ivica Zubac (19 points, 16 rebounds), Leonard (30 points) and Paul George (24 points, seven assists).
“I guess we’re starting to know our tendencies, know when somebody’s going to pass you the ball or they’re going to cut — there are all sorts of things that tie into chemistry and that’s built up with playing with one another,” Leonard said.
For three quarters, a pattern developed: Golden State winning the early minutes behind back-cuts and shotmaking, forcing a quick timeout by Lue. Then the Clippers stabilizing and pulling away, usually a product of their defense, before being reeled back by Curry and the Warriors for a frantic finish.
Following Lue’s timeout two minutes into the third quarter after a 7-0 Warriors run, the Clippers began a 16-4 run helped again by their defense. When George rebounded Green’s missed layup, he found Gordon for a quick 27-foot three-pointer. When Zubac slid over to swat Kevon Looney’s layup attempt, Westbrook grabbed the loose ball and found Gordon again, this time a 24-foot three-pointer and a 10-point lead.
They were reminders that the most striking element about their turnaround was not only that a defense that had sagged since late December had returned, but had reappeared in critical moments.
Since allowing a season-high 51 points in a quarter to Memphis, the Clippers had held opponents to 40% shooting or worse in seven of their last nine quarters entering Wednesday. And Memphis, Toronto and New York had shot a combined 31% in the fourth quarters of those three straight Clippers wins.
But as has been the case for much of the last decade, Curry stood in between the Clippers and what they wanted.
Starting with his layup with 4:51 to play in the third quarter, the NBA’s all-time three-point king scored Golden State’s next 12 points, the volume rising when he so much as touched the ball and exploding when a pair of circus shots fell as he surpassed 41 points. The Warriors shot 65% in the second quarter and 60% in the third as Curry made nine of 11 shots. They finished with 55% shooting, and yet the Clippers’ lead grew to 12 to open the fourth quarter.
Then Curry checked back in. In a 72-second span, he ripped off six points and the Clippers’ fitness to finish the job was again in question as was the ability of George, with five fouls, to avoid being sent off.
But the Clippers didn’t allow a point from 3:41 remaining until 1:13 was left — a stand that allowed their lead to grow from six to 13, and with it their winning streak.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.