Blake Griffin

“You could tell that this means something to us.” — Warriors win playoff-like thriller over Clippers

Take a deep breath and remember … it’s only the fifth game of the season. There are many more wild rides to come for the Warriors and Clippers, perhaps in games against each other (or even a playoff series, perish the thought), but tonight’s contest — a 112-108 win for Golden State over perhaps not their most dangerous, but certainly their most annoying rivals — was as entertaining as regular season basketball gets.

The Warriors slogged through an ugly, whistle-heavy first quarter that led to early Steph Curry foul trouble. Even without Curry for a long stretch, Golden State took a six-point advantage into a second quarter that would see the Warriors lead by as many as 17. Festus Ezeli sent back a Blake Griffin dunk attempt and converted lobs, Mo Speights swatted away an Austin Rivers shot, Curry hit a few threes in the second quarter, and another rout was guaranteed.

Or not. The Clippers had an angry Chris Paul and an effective Blake Griffin, and that was enough of a counter to pull the Clippers within a reasonable number by halftime. Curry’s shot left him in the third quarter, and the Warriors’ propensity to play too much iso-ball finally came back to bite them. As the Oracle Arena crowd started murmuring, the voices on the home team’s bench became louder and the team leaned on a tried-and-true combination in the fourth quarter: Curry’s offensive brilliance, smothering and switch-happy defense, and small ball.

The game might have been a bit of a wake-up call for the Warriors, who’d won each of their first four games by at least 14 points. They also obliterated the Grizzlies by 50 on Monday, putting the league on notice that they aren’t content to spend November staring at their giant shiny rings. One might even say the Warriors needed a game like this to remind them that they aren’t going to cruise to a 73-9 record.

“It was good for the fans. They got their money’s worth,” Thompson said after scoring 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting. He then admitted that the team probably benefited, too.

“You learn from games like this. It feels good to win games like this. Mostly, it was fun.”

You got that “fun” feeling from the Warriors, who fell behind by 10 in the fourth quarter but didn’t show an ounce of panic. Harrison Barnes, who up to that point had gone 1-for-4 from the floor and seemed to get stuck in too many isos and post-ups, scored eight straight points on two threes and a soaring fast break dunk, courtesy of an assist from Andre Iguodala.

Barnes’ new-found freedom came from a decision by Luke Walton that the Warriors have gone to so many times. Since their lineup with Draymond Green at center is rangy and athletic enough to defend just about any team, the temptation to go to it whenever they need to cut into a lead late is awfully strong.

“It allows us, as long as we get stops, to really take advantage on the offensive end and we did. Harrison was playing at the four and all of a sudden you have guys like Blake and DJ, they are taught their whole lives to get back on defense and protect the paint and Harrison got a couple of threes by just the defense not being set,” said undefeated interim head coach Luke Walton, who might be the lead guy on the sideline until after the All-Star break.

“It all starts with getting stops first. If we can’t get stops then we can’t do that. Our guys were up to the challenge and we got a couple and we were off and running.”

It also helps when Curry is Curry, as he was in the second and fourth quarters. DeAndre Jordan was tasked with covering the league’s most dominant offensive player behind the three-point line, and he never came close to deflecting one of Curry’s threes. Seven of Curry’s eight made field goals were threes, and in what’s becoming a pattern, Curry attempted more free throws (he went 8-for-9) than anyone else. Curry finished with a game-high 31 points and several more ooh-and-ah moments, and in the end he made everyone forget his brief cold spell — 0-for-6 while the Warriors scored just 19 points in third quarter. Golden State scored 30+ in the other three.

“All of the shots I took in the third quarter felt good, just didn’t fall. Our offense as a whole got stagnant and we weren’t able to create those shots we normally do,” said Curry.

“The fourth quarter was heavily pick-and-roll, but I was able to get a couple free looks, knock them down. Then I start dancing a little bit, get a rhythm and make a couple more. But never lost my confidence after the third quarter. It’s good for us to feel a little adversity against a good team like that, knowing we aren’t going to blow everybody out this year, and we answered the bell.”

“Hungry group of guys”

Curry told an ESPN sideline reporter after the win that this year’s Warriors team is better than the championship squad that celebrated in June. No one would’ve doubted that after Monday’s laugher over Memphis, but June was the last time they’ve dealt with adversity of any kind other than deciding which color shoes to wear. (Curry changed from a red pair to white midway through Wednesday night’s game, not because he realized he matched the opposition, but because the floor was slippery.)

Plus there’s a new coach. Well, a new head coach. And Warriors fans wondered aloud whether Walton was showing the urgency required in a playoff-like matchup when his team fell behind in the early stages of the fourth quarter. Yes, even though it’s only the fifth game of the season, the bench players need to know their coach has confidence in them (as well as experience in tight situations), and Walton spent most of his NBA career playing for the grand master of “let them figure it out” coaching in Phil Jackson.

The Warriors’ confidence is so thick right now, you could probably see it dripping out of your television set while watching this game. Curry’s rough third quarter bothered everyone but him.

What happened in the fourth quarter?

“We were pissed off,” Green said. “We don’t really get concerned. 10 points? We cover 10 points in a couple minutes. It’s not the end of the world.”

According to the Warriors, they got fairly angry with each other in as positive a way as possible.

“In the third quarter, honestly, there were some emotions on the bench. That’s what we need, a little fire to ignite. Guys going after each other, challenging each other in a healthy way, which is good. You could tell that this means something to us. To start off 5-0, keep winning, and never get complacent,” said Curry, who noted that the team is so close that the players can display that kind of honesty without it festering.

Iguodala agreed.

“It doesn’t last too long. That’s what I like about our group. The second unit came out, they were pretty pissed, so the second unit was really looking forward to the next game,” Iguodala said.

“The first unit saw the deficit, they wanted to get back and take the game and get the win. Especially Steph. And that’s what happened. We just got hungry. Hungry group of guys.”

Dub Steps

— I asked Curry who leads those discussions on the bench, and he maintained that it was “pretty much everybody.”

“We’re a team. We have different voices that step up for a lot of different reasons. But when it gets a little tough and a little chippy, a little emotion over there, everybody kind of steps up and refocuses us on what we need to do. That’s what happened on the bench. For us being the champs and coming back and starting the way we did this year, and finding different ways to win, that’s what got us 67 wins last year and a championship. So this is kind of the first test for us tonight for how we’re going to do that in tough situations.”

— More from Curry on the team’s productive arguments: “We’re all human, there’s normal reaction to getting yelled at or getting called out. But after that impulse reaction, you realize the situation. Guys getting on you for a reason. I think we have that understanding here. It’s not all this ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ There’s a little back and forth. But at the end of the day, guys shake hands, dap up, hug it out, whatever. Then we move on knowing that we’re trying to get better, trying to go places as a team. We need those moments to right the ship. If an individual is not playing well or our entire unit. If you had a microphone in our huddle, it probably wouldn’t be child-friendly, but at the end of the day when we leave, we’re a tight-knit group.”

— Paul played a beautiful first half, then got in foul trouble in the second half. He also got his pocket picked by Curry and was taken out of the game for the final play by Doc Rivers due to an injured groin. That was after Paul missed two free throws with under four minutes left, and had a chance to tie or take the lead with 20 seconds to go. However, Green’s defensive pressure forced Paul into a missed three with Griffin wide open for a dunk on the play.

“I didn’t know (Griffin) was open, but we weren’t giving up a three, that’s for sure,” Green said.

— Walton on the game’s pivotal point, when emotions ran high: “I’m still laid back, but I’ve always been competitive. When you are in the heat of the battle and get going, there are going to be some emotions out there … sometimes it makes you louder than normal and use some words you normally wouldn’t use, but it was a lot of fun out there.”

— I shot this before the game. Curry’s tunnel shots never get old.

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