With owner Steve Ballmer kicking and screaming from his courtside seat, the Los Angeles Clippers plunged a syringe of straight basketball adrenaline into the heart of the 2019 postseason on Monday night. Their rally from 31 points down against the mighty Golden State Warriors reminded anyone who might have been indifferent about this first-round series that it's still worth watching.
With Golden State up big in the second half, most everyone watching mocked the inevitability of Game 2's final outcome. The online discussions turned to whether the Warriors were better suited to play without a re-injured DeMarcus Cousins and to jokes about their additional layer of invincibility now that Stephen Curry had corrected his eyesight.
But the Clippers had other ideas, authoring the biggest comeback in NBA playoff history for a 135-131 victory at Oracle Arena, evening the first-round series at 1-1.
There was Patrick Beverley, still digging into Kevin Durant on the defensive end despite a deficit that stood at 31 with 7:31 left in the third quarter. There was Montrezl Harrell, still rolling hard to the rim down 20. There was Lou Williams, poking and prodding the Warriors' defense, still looking to draw contact, even as the only souls on the planet who thought a comeback was possible were Clippers employees.
Long after they had mentally checked out, the champs suddenly found themselves in a game as crunch time loomed. The lead was under 10 midway through the fourth quarter.
From there, they self-destructed.
Durant committed two of his nine turnovers with a pair of offensive fouls, sandwiched around a bricked 3-pointer, in the span of 69 seconds. He ultimately fouled out of a game that he'd never really settled into with 1:21 left. Curry, meanwhile, used only two of the Warriors' final nine possessions, one of which gave them their final lead, 131-128, with 58 seconds left.
At that point, Williams responded with a fadeaway that cut the deficit to one, before rookie guard Landry Shamet, after calmly collecting a smart feed from fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, put Los Angeles up for good on a 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining. Shamet, you might recall, was acquired in a deadline-week deal that sent Tobias Harris to Philadelphia; a deal that was supposed to signal the end of the Clippers' postseason ambitions for 2018-19. So much for that.
It's entirely possible, and perhaps even likely, that the Warriors' Game 2 collapse will mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. They may very well respond to the Clippers' historic comeback by rattling off three straight wins, leaving Monday's memorable finish as a mere footnote along their path to a third straight championship.
But if Cousins is lost for the season with his quad injury - a potentially devastating blow for a big man who's been dealt so many already - the Warriors will lose the presence who was supposed to nullify their one weakness. Golden State would have liked to dump the ball down to its star center for some easy looks when Los Angeles made its run. Going forward, will the Warriors have trouble with larger, but still mobile, opposing lineups?
Was Game 2's conclusion the type of moment we'll remember if the Warriors fail to win another title in a couple of months, or if Durant takes his talents elsewhere as a free agent in July? It might seem unrealistic for rivals to pin their hopes of the Warriors fracturing on one opening-round loss, but if those odds increased even microscopically Monday night, the challengers to the NBA's throne will take it.
The Warriors are a generational team, led by what might be a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent. It was always going to take an unusual sequence of events for them to be felled four times in seven games, but stranger things have happened. Heck, one of those strange things unfolded Monday night.
As Jacob Riis famously wrote of the stonecutter hammering away at a rock, when that rock finally splits in two, it's not that last blow that did it, but the hundreds of blows that came before it. The Clippers may not be there if the Warriors ultimately crack, but they might've just delivered an early blow that helps break Golden State's title defense.