After a splendid first half Saturday in which they revealed the best of themselves, wowing a surly Philadelphia audience, the Warriors slipped into clown suits in the second half and resorted to slapstick.
The defending champs were mordantly substandard in the third quarter and comically awful in the fourth, blowing a 24-point lead by shooting as if blindfolded and treating the ball as if it were coated with baby oil.
The Warriors were fortunate Harrison Barnes drilled a clutch shot, giving them a 108-105 victory over the 76ers and allowing them to avoid the embarrassment that surely would have followed a loss to the team with the worst record in the NBA.
“We’ve just got to learn the lesson of continuing to play 48 minutes,” Stephen Curry said. “We only played 24 tonight.”
Barnes’ bucket with 0.2 seconds left iced a furious Philadelphia rally, as the Sixers wiped out a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game with 22.3 seconds left.
The Warriors (43-4) were 17-point favorites, led by 19 at halftime and by 24 early in the third quarter. The game was playing to script.
And, then, after some listlessness in the third quarter, the Warriors sent in the clowns to play the fourth, 12 ghastly minutes in which they made seven shots – and committed seven turnovers. They shot 29.2 percent (7 of 24) while the 76ers shot 59.1 in the fourth.
“The first five minutes of the third quarter we completely messed around with the game and we probably should’ve lost,” coach Steve Kerr said. “If the gods delivered what should’ve happened we probably should’ve lost because that’s what happens when you mess around with the game and with the ball.”
With the score tied, Kerr designed a play that practically assured somebody would be open. Curry zipped a pass to Draymond Green just below the free-throw line, and he spotted Barnes alone in the corner for the game-winner.
“After a beautiful first half of ball movement, we totally got away from our game and lost our focus,” Kerr said. "Harrison bailed us out, and Draymond made a great pass at the end."
“But, yeah, that was pretty ugly.”
After a first half in which the Warriors rang up 26 assists on 32 baskets, they managed only 11 assists and 15 field goals after halftime. Against one of the worst defenses in the league, they shot 32.6 percent over the final 24 minutes.
The Warriors essentially used their first half to build up enough cushion to withstand a 76ers rally they may not have seen coming. But they invited it, with haphazard play across the board.
Philadelphia (7-41) was only too pleased to seize the opportunity. The Sixers started the season by losing their first 18 games and 30 of the first 31. They’ve made changes, however, that have inched them toward respectability. Ownership, reportedly with pressure from the NBA, summoned highly respected Jerry Colangelo to be an advisor. He took one look at this mess and phoned longtime coach Mike D’Antoni to come in as an assistant to head coach Brett Brown.
The 76ers are playing better ball, and this was their first sellout since they’ve shown improvement. Such a comeback, against a championship team, was encouraging.
“For us and to be down 24 and find a way to not roll over, not be all caught up in the moment – and find a way to give something back to our fans who were fantastic – is a great thing for our young team,” Brown said. “It validates the work they have put in. it showed we have not let down and no back down. I give us a lot of credit.”
Klay Thompson, who scored a game-high 32 points, credited the Sixers while also blaming himself and his teammates.
“They’re a hard-playing team and played disciplined at the end, the exact opposite of what we did,” he said. “We did not play disciplined. We can’t have let up like that, especially if we want to be a championship caliber team.”
Though the Warriors got away with it on this night, playing the clown is not a formula they’d like to follow. They wouldn’t always be able to laugh in relief at the end.