Clippers survive Stephen Curry’s 50-point game in big win vs. Warriors

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry (30) drives past Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 134-126. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) drives past Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half on Wednesday at Arena. The Clippers won 134-126. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

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 laden 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.

They responded Wednesday night in a 134-126 win, surviving a 50-point effort by Curry thanks in part to 30 by Kawhi Leonard to stretch their winning streak to four.

Nine years ago, headlined by Paul at point guard, the Lob City-era 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 between Paul and the Clippers and Curry’s Warriors 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 7-27 on the road, and even with Andrew Wiggins away from the team for nearly two months for undisclosed private matters, 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.

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And so the teams’ meeting Wednesday at Arena represented a psychic test.

It also was, more importantly, a pragmatic one: With the teams entering with identical 36-33 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.

For three quarters, a pattern developed: Golden State winning the early minutes behind back-cuts and shotmaking, forcing a quick timeout by Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. Then the Clippers stabilized and pulled away, usually a product of their defense, before being reeled in by Curry and the Warriors for a frantic finish.

When Ivica Zubac tipped away a Curry pass in traffic late in the second quarter, Paul George pushed upcourt in transition and lobbed a pass at the rim dunked by Leonard for an eight-point lead.

Clippers' Paul George celebrates his 3-point basket with Ivica Zubac.

Clippers’ Paul George (13) celebrates his 3-point basket with Ivica Zubac (40) as Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green (23) walks to the team’s bench for a timeout during the second half on Wednesday at Arena. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

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 Eric Gordon for a quick 27-foot three-pointer. When Zubac slid over to swat Kevon Looney’s layup attempt, Russell Westbrook grabbed the loose ball and found Gordon again, this time for a 24-foot three-pointer for a 10-point lead. Gordon had started the second half after starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. was ejected late in the second quarter for hitting Green on the head while positioning for a rebound.

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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 during their third-quarter avalanche, 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 fourth quarters of those three straight Clippers wins.

The Clippers, ever cautious with workloads, have not always tasked their superstar two-way duo of Leonard and George to guard opponents’ most dangerous offensive players for long stretches. That changed Wednesday.

“They got it tonight,” Lue said.

But as has been the case for much of the last decade, Curry stood 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 late in the quarter 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.

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The Clippers’ lead grew to 12 to open the fourth quarter, fueled by Terance Mann doing everything, everywhere, all at once — collecting two offensive rebounds on a possession he ended with a basket and foul, then drawing an offensive foul on Golden State before flexing. Then Curry checked back in. In a 72-second span, he ripped off six points and assisted on a Thompson layup, the lead down to seven with half the final quarter to play.

The Clippers’ readiness to finish the job was again in question, the onus falling on their defense to provide any breathing room, and the ability of George, with five fouls, to avoid being sent off.

With three defenders keyed in on Curry, he found an open teammate for a corner three-pointer, then another for a rolling layup, then hit 50 with a floater made possible by a pump-fake.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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