Life is full of contradictions and counterintuitive truths. The theater of athletic competition — unscripted and chaotic — is representative of this messy and inconvenient existence in a world that’s hard to understand.
In the present-day NBA, no rivalry is harder to understand than the one between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. This is a contest which sows clarity and confusion at the same time.
Where to begin with the Dubs and the Clips after the reigning champions preserved their unbeaten record by erasing a 23-point deficit to pull out a 124-117 win on Thursday night, with TNT pulling in a smashing 11.0 rating for the event?
In many ways, the story of this game is that there’s no shortage of stories to be found.
Here lies the heart of this construct of clarity and confusion, sitting together on a crowded passenger train: The Warrior-Clipper rivalry is at once so fiercely contested and yet so utterly imbalanced. These teams go at each other so ferociously and with such unrelenting vigor, and yet one team is so thoroughly superior to the other in terms of closing games; owning big moments; and establishing the kind of consistency professional excellence requires. Golden State-Los Angeles is bitterly contentious and contextually lopsided.
How else to explain the overflowing confidence of #NBATwitter — and of many casual fans — when the Warriors fell behind by 23 in the first half, and even when they again fell behind by 10 midway through the fourth quarter?
There is such deep belief in the power of these Warriors to succeed, and just as much belief in the ability of these Clippers to squander prosperity. Stephen Curry’s overwhelmingly awesome start to this new season as the reigning MVP — reminding us that he’s the best player in the league in the present tense (though not the best player on the planet in a larger sense; that’s still LeBron James) — is responsible for the faith and trust the Dubs are accumulating. The Clippers’ gack attack in Game 6 against the Houston Rockets last May is responsible for the public’s bottomless reservoir of doubt.
Thursday night, these beliefs and the narratives attached to them were resoundingly reaffirmed. Viewed through these lenses, Dubs-Clips gave us even more clarity.
Many who watch the NBA are now that much more convinced that Golden State can be a 70-win team, joining the 1996 Chicago Bulls on the Association’s Mount Olympus. The fact that the Warriors are doing what they’re doing is impressive enough; that they’re doing it with a 35-year-old interim head coach (with only one prior year of any coaching experience and no prior head coaching experience) takes their feat to a higher plane.
Given that Golden State achieved an effective (field-goal) shooting percentage of 100 in the fourth quarter (8-of-9 on threes, 73 percent from the field), it’s not as though the Clippers handed this win to the Warriors. Yet, when you have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on your team, and you continue to lose leads of 18 or more points in the final 12 to 14 minutes of highly-watched games on your home floor, what else is the rest of the pro basketball community supposed to think?
This tension between clarity and confusion deepens when you realize how much of the offseason was marked by the debate over whether the Warriors were “lucky” or not. Sure, they were lucky to win the 2015 title, but the implied statement lurking (not that far) behind the surface debate — or more precisely, behind the continuous nature of a debate that would not exit NBA websites and their daily streams of content — was that the Warriors were somehow conspicuously flawed. They did not “deserve” the NBA title the way other teams did.
A subtext of “they’re not as legitimate as other champions,” often expressed in the idea that “Cleveland would have beaten them in the Finals if healthy,” lingered over the Warriors in a way other champions haven’t had to face.
In terms of the MVP race and the similar conversation about which player you’d want as the cornerstone of your team, the fact that 29 (non-GSW) NBA general managers omitted Stephen Curry from the list — explored here by my colleague, John Cannon — spoke volumes about the lack of respect Golden State was accorded in the offseason. To be specific and urgent here, this was not just a lack of respect from fans in the peanut gallery, but from a lot of people who evaluate professional basketball players (and teams) for a living in some capacity. Anthony Davis was the hot MVP candidate heading into the start of the season. That candidacy is pretty much dead, half a month in, while Steph and the Warriors have people marveling at the totality of their brilliance.
This has occurred in the span of just 3.5 weeks, folks. A lot of narratives formed within the NBA, by anything-but-peripheral figures, have been smashed in a very short period of time.
This is a portrait of clarity, yes, but it also invites a conversation about how (and why) the “Are the Warriors lucky?” debate continued as long (and as unnecessarily) as it did. That’s a source of confusion.
The fact that the Clippers and Doc Rivers felt fine about perpetuating that debate? Ah, that’s where we turn to the more fascinating set of contradictions after Thursday night’s game.
The Clippers have essentially done nothing in their entire existence — not one conference final, not one appearance on Memorial Day weekend in any NBA season. The grand occasions, the big end-stage moments of an NBA season, have never featured the Clippers.
Yet, if you were to ask NBA fans about the non-rivalry-based team they hate the most (i.e., Celtic fans couldn’t answer the Lakers, or vice-versa; Spur and Thunder fans couldn’t answer the other; Cav and Bull fans couldn’t cite the other, etc.), the Clippers would certainly place in the top three across the board, and very possibly snag the number one spot.
That itself is a source of confusion. The Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns aren’t widely hated in the NFL — they don’t matter. They have rarely if ever done anything in the Super Bowl era, about to mark half a century. Organizations which haven’t achieved anything in many decades aren’t supposed to be loathed; they’re supposed to be ignored. Yet, the Clippers inspire very little of the affection and empathy a lot of other organizations would receive in their position (a position without rings or honors).
Blake Griffin is, for a great many NBA fans, viewed in this context: “God, I’d love him so much more if he wasn’t a Clipper.”
The melange of reactions and emotions the Clippers create is an endless source of fascination. Losing — especially when blowing massive leads at home — ought to inspire sympathy, but for so many who care about pro basketball, an implosion by this team inspires unreserved glee.
Is it Doc? Is it Chris Paul’s flopping and the anger with which he seems to play? Is it the lack of harmony with DeAndre Jordan, which very nearly moved him to go to Dallas (before he reconsidered)? Is it the constant flow of soap-operatic developments? Is it the knucklehead factor on the team? Is it the ownership situation? Is it the idea that the Clips have two of the 10 best players in the world, and can’t do anything with them, thereby creating the sense that they are wasteful?
All those notions are part of the whole, but the whole is the puzzle, the lingering mystery about an organization which few neutral parties feel sorry for.
We now arrive at a final intersection between clarity and confusion:
While the Warriors seem set on the path for yet another huge season and a top seed in the West, this game does set up all sorts of fascinating possibilities for the Clippers. Ultimately, these various possibilities can be distilled into one core question:
Will the Clippers grow or shrivel as a result of what they endured on Thursday against the Dubs?
Many layers can be extracted from that question, but it is the essential query of the moment. Sure, on a more granular level, Doc must figure out how to adjust his rotations, especially when the Warriors go small. Sure, the injury to J.J. Redick influenced how the Clippers failed to handle Golden State on Thursday; they might have that piece available in the future. Yet, all those smaller questions pale in comparison to the big one: Are the Clippers ever going to get past their core demons, and the persistent tendency to fall short?
The Dallas Cowboys were a star-laden organization in the late 1960s, beginning to attract a following as a popular and centrally important team in the NFL of that era. Yet, as John Facenda said in an NFL Films video, the Cowboys were a team perceived as having “a Roman appetite for victory, but not the Spartan will needed to achieve it.”
That, in many ways, is where the Clippers stand right now. They are the NBA’s answer to the 1969 Dallas Cowboys. They can chirp all they want about how lucky Golden State might be. They can cite the absence of J.J. Redick as an excuse. They can give us all the amazing skills of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, night after night. Yet, what of it? What does it matter, if the team can’t come good in crunch time?
That is a note of resounding clarity for the Clippers… as they wonder how they can possibly begin to solve the rival which has quickly learned how to act like the champions the Clippers seem fated to never become.