SAN FRANCISCO — It is a game that won't decide the Clippers' playoff fate but could reveal plenty about how far they will go in the coming weeks.
Do they really fashion themselves as NBA Finals contenders, or are they already satisfied by taking a two-games-to-one lead over the Golden State Warriors in the first round?
Can they finish off a flattened opponent or will they help them back onto their feet?
Will they summon the resolve to again silence Oracle Arena or does the series soundtrack shift from murmurs to roars?
The answers will come Sunday afternoon in Game 4 that could serve as a referendum on the Clippers' postseason legitimacy.
Win, and the beads of sweat start to form on the brows of Western Conference heavyweights San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
Lose, and you might as well throw a cold towel over the Clippers' championship aspirations. Do you really think they can handle the Spurs in early June if they can't dispense with the Warriors in late April?
Some will point out that win or lose Sunday, the Clippers will retain home-court advantage heading into Game 5 on Tuesday at Staples Center.
That's a wrong-headed approach. This team can't adopt a got-what-we-came-to-the-Bay-Area-to-do mentality unless it wants to risk this turning into a seven-game series that could result in a second consecutive first-round exit.
The longer this series goes, the higher the probability that the Splash Brothers duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will go from drip and drab back to splish and splash. Thompson has made 35% of his three-pointers in the series and Curry has been worse, making only 28.6%.
Those numbers seem even more dreadful when you consider that Curry shot 42.4% from beyond the arc in the regular season and Thompson shot 41.7%.
"They've yet to have that game or that run or Steph having a quarter where he hits four or five [three-pointers], Klay hits four or five," Clippers guard J.J. Redick said Friday. "We know it can come."
Golden State will also probably stop bungling its way through the series after averaging 22 turnovers over the first three games, meaning the Clippers must play better to keep winning.
The Clippers said the right things Friday when they met with the media inside their posh team hotel near Union Square on a rare off day, downplaying their series lead and insisting they would maintain their sense of urgency.
Of course, now they have to do it.
"You've got to go play and if you let up, you're going to lose," said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers. "So we've got a 2-1 lead and as far as I'm concerned, that means zero to us. We have to be better and I meant that. We have to play better and I told our guys that."
Rivers pinpointed his team's "college stall" offense at the end of Game 3 and said it played soft defense that allowed the Warriors to pull within two points with a chance to win in the final seconds on Curry's airballed three-pointer.
These are the kinds of things that can happen to teams holding leads in games and series. What did Golden State do after winning the series opener on the Clippers' home court? Barely show up and get drubbed by 40 points in Game 2.
The Clippers seem to realize they're only halfway to their goal in this round.
"You need four wins and we've only won two," Redick said. "There's no reason that we shouldn't play with the same energy on Sunday and be greedy. I mean, we knew coming in it was going to be tough to get four wins against Golden State and that hasn't changed."
Clippers forward Blake Griffin, whose 83 points in 93 minutes make him destined to be the most valuable player of this series barring a collapse by his team, said he wasn't worried about maintaining a psychological edge.
"I think you don't think about it in those terms," Griffin said. "Just come out and play the way we play, be the aggressor. It's going to be a great environment like it was [Thursday] night. Enjoy it, relax and have fun."
Another win would make the afternoon a lot more enjoyable for the Clippers, possibly signaling the start of a joy ride that could last all the way to late June.
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