LOS ANGELES — The text landed a little after 9 on Friday night. The Golden State Warriors players had decided — of their own volition — to move practice up from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. the following morning.
“I got the text at night, 9:15 or so, and it was like, ‘Adjust accordingly,'” Warriors small forward Kevin Durant said with a smile.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr has always let his players weigh in on the start of practices and other team activities. It’s his way of giving his players a sense of ownership over their schedule — but also letting them know that he trusts them to be professional enough to do what they need to do to perform.
So when Kerr got a text from team manager Eric Hausen, letting him know the players wanted to practice early to prepare for the 12:30 p.m. start to Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the LA Clippers on Sunday, he smiled, too.
“I don’t know if that’s ever happened,” Kerr joked about players choosing an early end to their off night in Los Angeles. “But it’s a good sign. Normally you worry about them at night. Because if they’re out at night, they don’t want to get up early and practice.”
But the Clippers had the Warriors’ attention after their historic 31-point comeback in Game 2 of this series. They could do it again if the Warriors got complacent. And with next round’s likely opponent, the Houston Rockets, having taken a commanding 3-0 series lead on the Utah Jazz, the Warriors could ill afford to let LA find any life.
“We have our eyes on the other teams playing,” guard Klay Thompson said after the Warriors’ 113-105 win over the Clippers on Sunday afternoon.
“We see Houston being up 3-0 with a chance to close it out. We didn’t want to extend this series any longer because we know how grueling the playoffs can be. We already let one slip away, so tonight we came in with that mindset to put our foot on the throttle and not let go, because we let go in Game 2 and we won’t do that again the rest of the playoffs. I really believe that.”
The challenge Sunday was to be ready for the early 12:30 p.m. tip time. That may not sound early to the 9-to-5 crowd, but for an NBA player, who normally has to be at his best between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., it’s quite a departure.
“I’m not a morning person,” Thompson said. “So it was a struggle to get up and practice that early. Felt like I was back at Santa Margarita [High School].”
But it paid off Sunday, as Thompson hit his first seven shots on his way to 27 first-half points to stake the Warriors to a 62-54 halftime lead. The Clippers rallied in the third quarter, hitting 5 of 7 3-pointers to take an 82-77 lead with 3 minutes, 57 seconds remaining. But Stephen Curry hit four free throws and his lone 3-pointer of the game during a 10-2 Golden State run to close out the quarter, and the Warriors didn’t trail again the rest of the game.
Thompson finished with 32 points and Kevin Durant scored seven of his game-high 33 points in the final 5:37 of the game as the Warriors finished off a scrappy Clippers team to take a 3-1 series lead.
Curry had one of his worst shooting nights of the season, hitting just 3 of 14 shots and 1 of 9 from behind the 3-point arc in 35 minutes. Like the other three games in the series, Curry spent most of the night in foul trouble. But that seven-point burst at the end of the third quarter, his 10 rebounds and seven assists were all the Warriors needed after getting big games from Thompson and Durant.
“He still stuffs the stat sheet,” Thompson said of his fellow Splash Brother. “Even when he’s not shooting well, we still trust him to take any shot he takes.”
The Warriors will have a chance to close out the Clippers in Game 5 at Oracle Arena on Wednesday. That’s critical because a second-round playoff series could start as soon as next Sunday in Oakland. And it still would if the Clippers can force a Game 6 on Friday in Los Angeles.
The Rockets, of course, pushed Golden State to seven games in the Western Conference finals last season, and are still seen as their most dangerous rival despite their No. 4 seeding. If anything, an early matchup with Houston — before veterans James Harden and Chris Paul have to play heavy playoff minutes — might be more dangerous than a conference finals matchup. Last year, Paul got hurt in Game 5 and was unable to play in the final two games of the series.
That seems to have caught Golden State’s attention as much as the Clippers did in Game 2 of this series and created a sense of urgency.
It was enough to get them up two hours early on a Saturday morning in Los Angeles, anyway.