SAN FRANCISCO – In a season of lessons learned but not always remembered by the Warriors, Chris Paul dropped one on Ky Bowman Monday night that will stay with him forever.
With four minutes remaining and the Warriors leading the Thunder by 10, the game shifted into the finishing phase, signifying that its conclusion naturally dictated by the point guards.
The Warriors had Bowman, an undrafted rookie all of 22 years old.
The Thunder were riding with Paul, a nine-time NBA All-Star and veteran of 102 playoff games.
Even though much of the night Bowman held his own, sometimes getting the better of Paul, this is where experience matters. There is hoping, and there is knowing. There is getting there, and there is been there, done that. Even in Chase Center, home of the Warriors, the fourth quarter of a close game is Paul's turf.
"It's hard with a guy like that, who knows the game and knows how to get late fouls," Bowman says after a 100-97 loss.
"Chris has been closing games for a decade-plus, and doing it better than just about anybody," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
On cue, Paul nails a 3-pointer with 3:01 remaining to slice the Warriors' lead to seven, 97-90.
Bowman misses a layup in traffic, with Paul getting the rebound, only to have Danilo Gallinari throw a pass out of bounds. Turnover, ball back to the Warriors.
With 2:23 remaining, Bowman misses a floater, again in traffic, the rebound again to Paul. He flips a pass to Dennis Schroder, who drills a triple. Assist to Paul. It's 97-93 with 2:17 remaining and the sellout crowd, so ecstatic two minutes earlier, is turning anxious and restless. They sense what's coming.
The Warriors commit two fouls in eight seconds, the first assessed to forward Eric Paschall and the second to Bowman. No matter. Paul misses a jumper, but OKC center Steven Adams snags the rebound and is fouled by Willie Cauley-Stein.
Adams makes one of two free throws, and it's 97-94 with 1:32 remaining.
The next Warriors possession never materializes. Alec Burks tosses a lazy inbounds pass, intended for Bowman, that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander swipes and races to the rack for a bucket. It's a one-point game, 1:22 remaining.
Nerves are flaring up. Minds, at least some of them, are getting cluttered. This especially applies to the Warriors, who are learning on the job. They're the kids, and the Thunder is taking to them like men.
Enter Paul. As a former member of the once-detested Clippers, who then landed with even more abhorred Rockets, CP3 is a longtime enemy of the Warriors. Fans at Chase don't care that he is with the foundering Thunder and there are no playoff implications to this game. They're serenading him with boos every time he touches the ball.
Paul drains a 19-foot fadeaway, giving OKC the lead, 98-97, for the first time since the first quarter and leaving 36.8 seconds on the clock.
The Warriors have two more possessions. Bowman has two more chances. Both fail, one crunched by the clock after considerable dribbling, the other a hurried 3-pointer by Jordan Poole that is sent away by Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Warriors leave the court in defeat.
That's something we are going to look back on, just the last three minutes," Bowman says. "We had it in our hands. Just knowing as a guard to try to get good plays, good shots. Some of the shots came on too fast."
There were quick shots. Poor shots. Contested shots. Dribbling that led to nothing. There were defensive miscues. This was a game the Warriors gave away.
"More than anything, I just feel sick for our guys, because they continue to compete and work," Kerr says. "They deserve better. But, on the other hand, we weren't good enough to close the game out, so we didn't deserve to win."
Kerr adds that Bowman was "brilliant," when he was for most of the night. Playing 39 minutes, he finishes with 24 points, five assists, three steals and one turnover.
Which doesn't mollify his despair.
"It hurts, losing. That's the hardest thing," he says. "Going back to that locker room after being up by 10. It's just tough. Having to sleep on that loss is going to be a hard thing.
"To know that we had it in our hands against veteran guys . . . just learning from experience. We're young. We're getting better each day. We're becoming more of a team as we go on."