LOS ANGELES — Midway through the fourth quarter, the wary Staples Center crowd finally rose for the evening’s first full-throated standing ovation, acknowledging consecutive offensive rebounds that helped the Clippers keep the Jazz at bay.
This wasn’t a glamorous above-the-rim highlight, but rather an elbow-greased case of the third time being the charm: Jamal Crawford missed a jumper and then tracked down his own rebound; Chris Paul missed a three-pointer only to have Luc Richard Mbah a Moute extend the possession again; and then Paul finally cashed in with his signature mid-range pull-up.
The ping–pong sequence, which pushed the Clippers’ lead back to eight points in a tight 99-91 win that evened the series Tuesday, exemplified LA’s improved energy and resourcefulness following a bleak Game 1 showing. If the Clippers had initially been slow to capitalize on Rudy Gobert’s injury and struggled to pierce the Jazz’s defense, they returned with more force and better ideas. “We had a couple of days being pretty pissed off,” Blake Griffin admitted. “Our spirit [tonight] was great.”
Utah proved again that it won’t shatter without its Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the middle, keeping contact throughout even though Paul (21 points, 10 assists), Griffin (24 points) and DeAndre Jordan (18 points, 15 rebounds) all delivered standout performances. The contest hinged on LA’s ability to squeeze points out of crevices because its outside shooting was missing in action for the second straight game.
That process started early with Paul attacking Utah’s defense in pick-and-roll situations. Without Gobert around to dissuade paint forays, Paul slicied through the defense and drove hard at Derrick Favors, forcing Utah’s big man to decide whether to defend the ball or cover Jordan. In the game’s first six minutes, Paul twice found soft spots for jumpers and twice found Jordan for lobs over the top. “You’re talking about probably the best pick-and-roll player in the league and you might have the best roller in the league,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Paul and Jordan, respectively. “The pressure they put on the rim was significant tonight.”
LA supplemented its over-the-top threat with much-needed doses of early offense. While Game 2 was still played at the Jazz’s preferred slow tempo, with both teams failing to crack 100 points and scoring just 10 fast-break points each, the Clippers made Griffin’s life easier by feeding him before the defense was set. His first bucket came on a runout, his second came on a spectacular dunk through traffic, and his third came as he muscled Joe Johnson for paint position and received an opportunistic throw-ahead pass. Midway through the second quarter, Griffin came up the court a half-step ahead of Joe Ingles and drove hard through a narrow seam for another basket at the rim.
“We came with the right amount of urgency tonight,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “That’s the only way we’re going to win this series. The [Jazz are] long, they’re big, they’re strong, they’re great defensively. The game is going to get mucked up at times. It’s going to come down a lot of times to who is the most physical and who gets the 50–50 balls.”
All told, 10 of Griffin’s 11 baskets came from within three feet. His offensive game came much easier than it did in Game 1, when he committed six turnovers and regularly ran into congested areas.
The takeaways for unlocking Griffin were clear and related: 1) a little bit of pace is better than none, and 2) a little bit of space is better than none. When he puts his mind to it, Griffin is excellent at racing ahead of the action and sealing defenders to put himself in advantageous situations. That trick of the trade produced multiple easy looks in Game 2 and helps him punish Johnson and other smaller defenders without getting bogged down in post isolations.
Even without the benefit of reliable perimeter shooting to free up clear massive lanes, Griffin did well to identity chances to slip through the heart of Utah’s defense before the Jazz could collapse and harass him. Paul and the Clippers’ other guards looked to spring Griffin and the threat of lobs to Jordan helped keep Favors occupied as the game wore on. “Basketball is a game of reads,” Paul said. “We play the game looking for whatever is there. If the guy is open for a jumper, we find him. If the guy is open for a dunk, we find him.”
Snyder, fully composed in defeat, promised “adjustments” to counter LA’s 60 points in the paint, and pointed to the Clippers’ improved “intensity” as the biggest difference between Games 1 and 2. Indeed, after the Clippers had been overly reactive and passive in Game 1, they were much steadier in Game 2. Paul’s jumper following the offensive rebounds was a backbreaker, as was Griffin’s confidence to take and make a corner three with less than two minutes remaining.
“They raised their level tonight,” Snyder said. “We didn’t necessarily back down but I thought they played with an intensity and a level from the beginning of the game. It was impressive. That’s who they are. That’s what we expected. We’ve got to raise our level.”
To hold on to its home-court advantage, Utah needs to tighten up its interior defense, get more efficient scoring from Gordon Hayward (20 points on 5-of-15 shooting), maintain its edge at the free-throw line, keep LA’s tertiary options in check, and hope that Johnson, Rodney Hood or George Hill can step forward to deliver a strong secondary scoring effort.
One major adjustment the Jazz can bank on for Game 3 is atmospheric: Utah will be hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2012 and seeking its first playoff victory since 2010. Remarkably, the last time Jazz fans celebrated a home playoff win, Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan was still the coach, Deron Williams was a newly-minted All-Star, Gordon Hayward was still a draft prospect, and the Vivint Smart Home Arena was still known as EnergySolutions Arena.
After such a long postseason drought, and considering how hopes were raised by Utah’s buzzer-beating Game 1 victory, these two teams are about to trade the guarded Staples Center for a pure frenzy.