LOS ANGELES –The Warriors have played 33 first-round NBA playoff games over the past seven seasons and none was more highly anticipated than their 34th, which comes Thursday night against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.
That’s where, in Game 3 of the series, they’ll answer a question they’ve never had to face: Did they, as a team, learn a lesson about protecting a lead in the postseason?
It’s also where Kevin Durant will answer a question he has not faced since joining the Warriors in July 2016: Is he ready to impose his will?
The two questions combined to form a third: Are the No. 1 seed Warriors ready to boot the eighth-seeded Clippers into the offseason?
“When we’re locked in, mentally and physically on both ends of the floor, getting a good shot with every possession and flying around on defense, we can dominate,” Steph Curry said Thursday after shootaround. “We’ve got to take life out of the building, take life out of the team tonight.”
There is a broad curiosity about Game 3 and how the Warriors will respond. The hours since 10:30 Monday night and 7:30 Thursday night have been and will be filled by NBA fans discussing and debating how the Warriors blew a 31-point third-quarter lead – the biggest giveback in NBA playoff history – at home, to the Clippers in Game 2.
“We can highlight certain things that could have stopped the bleeding down the stretch,” Curry said. “My fouls. Turnovers. Being lackadaisical on defense in terms of not being in the right spots to start possessions and not being able to rotate around. It was a perfect storm of everything happening in their favor and them playing well and us not.
“But we understand that for six quarters, six-and-a-half, really, we were playing amazing basketball. We cannot get too far from that. We’ve got to rebuild that momentum, especially in the first quarter tonight.”
The Warriors are searching for the killer instinct they used to have. The club that holds the NBA record for most consecutive wins after building a 15-point lead (or more), at 114 games – with the last 110 coming under coach Steve Kerr – has devolved into a group that takes pity on its opponent.
We’ve seen them in recent years blow double-digit leads on numerous occasions in the regular season. The 24-point lead to the Memphis Grizzlies that turned into a nine-point home loss on Jan. 6, 2017. The 17-point third-quarter lead to Houston on opening night of the 2017-18 season and the 14-point third quarter lead to Detroit in October less than two weeks later.
And then the one that seemed to sting more than the others, allowing the Rockets to come back from a 20-point third-quarter deficit last on Jan. 3. That looked to be the tipping point. The Warriors, angered, won 11 in a row, six by at least 18 points and four by more than 25. The “killer instinct” was back.
Then puzzling came the final six weeks, when the Warriors blew a 13-point third-quarter lead at Orlando, a 16-point second-quarter lead to the Phoenix Suns at Oracle Arena and, finally, a 19-point third-quarter lead at Minnesota.
Game 2, however, was a giveback of epic proportions, in the playoffs, where the Warriors generally seek and destroy. They instead did a lot of standing around.
They were destroyed.
“It was a very strange night for us,” Kerr said. “We’ve been at this now for years, but this was definitely the strangest playoff game I can remember our team having. The vibe in the second half and the letting go of the rope, or however you want to put it, I haven’t seen our team in that position before.”
It was a night when the performance of the Warriors sent a message around the league, becoming a motivational tool for other coaches, as in “No lead is safe in the playoffs. Look at what happened to the Warriors.”
Game 3 will tell us if these Warriors truly absorbed the lessons of Game 2, can use it in real time as a cautionary tale and have learned, once and for all, from such a tangible illustration.