LOS ANGELES — When the final buzzer sounded Tuesday night, officially signaling that the Clippers’ season was on the brink, Chris Paul kept a firm hold on the ball while watching back toward the bench, as if clinging to the hope that the referees might agree to give him another chance.
Indeed, the All-Star point guard’s refusal to surrender is the only reason this remains an open series: Paul orchestrated a solid Game 2 win and he carried the Clippers to a Game 3 win despite the loss of Blake Griffin to a toe injury. In Game 5, he posted 28 points and nine assists, keyed a critical 11-0 fourth-quarter run, drew a technical foul after scrapping with Gordon Hayward for a loose ball, and then drained a desperation three-pointer in the final seconds to pull the Clippers back into position for a potential miracle that never materialized. Despite his best efforts during that frantic closing push, the Jazz claimed a 96-92 road win at the Staples Center to take a 3-2 series lead and push Paul within a single loss of his second straight first-round exit and ninth postseason trip without advancing to the conference finals.
So it was no surprise when Paul reacted with something between indignation and outrage when asked by a reporter whether the Clippers would be able to claim Game 6 in Utah on Friday to force a Game 7. “What?” Paul replied, forcing a clarification. “What you think? I’m on the team. What you want me to say? ‘No, it’s over.’ Come on, man. You’ve been doing this long enough.”
Paul’s exasperated tone conveyed his true message: I’m the one who has been doing this long enough.I’ve been carrying playoff teams, posting monster stat lines, playing until the buzzer, and being consumed by defeats for long enough that I don’t need to answer questions about my confidence in a do-or-die game. Clearly, this wasn’t about the reporter’s experience, but his own.
“Everybody in here is laughing for a reason,” Paul concluded, with nervous giggles spreading around the press conference room. “Come on, man.”
The scene was eerily reminiscent of Game 1’s aftermath, when Clippers coach Doc Rivers took a reporter to task for questioning his late-game strategy following a buzzer-beating defeat. Like Rivers, Paul had managed to cleanly win the podium battle while the series war slipped further out of LA’s control.
Through five extraordinarily tense and tight games, it’s becoming clear that the Clippers have ready retorts for misguided questions from the media, but fewer answers for the Jazz, now that Griffin isn’t around to dictate the match-ups. “It’s no secret, our backs are against the wall,” Paul admitted.
Without his star power forward, Rivers has been forced to make a series of compromises that wind up biting his team one way or another. LA started Game 5 big, only to get nothing from Griffin’s replacement, Marreese Speights. Rivers then turned to veteran Paul Pierce, whose waning speed and athleticism made him tough to keep on the court. From there, Rivers cycled through smaller looks featuring Austin Rivers, back from a hamstring injury, and fellow reserve guards Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton. Together, the trio combined to score just eight points on 2-of-15 shooting, as the Jazz’s bench outscored the Clippers’ reserves by a whopping 36-16 margin.
The backbreaking late-game moments came against these smaller lineups, as Jazz forward Gordon Hayward was twice able to claim crucial offensive rebounds. With a little over three minutes remaining, Hayward raced past Crawford and out-jumped Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to tip the ball out to a waiting Joe Johnson for a three-pointer. Then, in the game’s closing minutes, Hayward again outjumped Crawford for a rebound that led to the scuffle with Paul and a pair of lead-extending free throws. “It's tough because we're small and at times we need the offense, but then we give up the offensive rebound,” Rivers said. “You're playing a dangerous game out there and sometimes you get burned.”
Hayward posted a team-high 27 points, eight rebounds and four assists, looking very much like a first-time All-Star ready to claim his first career postseason series victory. “It was just adrenaline taking over at that point in time, competitive juices,” he said of his offensive rebounds. “You can afford to crash the glass a little bit and just try to make a play.”
Without Griffin, there are no great options for a roster that has been top-heavy since the early days of Lob City. If Rivers stays big to start, he trots out three frontline players—DeAndre Jordan, Mbah a Moute and Speights—and shooting guard J.J. Redick simultaneously, all of whom rely on Paul to initiate their offensive chances. If Rivers downsizes by removing Speights to add a second ball-handler like Rivers or Felton, he concedes a physical mismatch with Jazz forward Boris Diaw.
“I have a dilemma early on,” Rivers acknowledged, hinting that a starting lineup change would come in Game 6. “Without Blake in the first seven minutes, Chris is the only ball-handler on the floor, and that's too hard. I thought Chris got tired early so we are going to have to try to do something about that. I think that hurt our offense, the fact that Chris had to bring it up literally every time, and so we have to make an adjustment there.”
An even bigger concern than the early offense for the Clippers is how to handle both Hayward and Johnson late in games. Johnson turned in another strong fourth-quarter stretch in Game 5, finishing with 14 points and eight rebounds while hitting a step-back dagger in the game’s final minute. The Clippers' best bet without Griffin is to deploy Mbah a Moute on Johnson and Rivers on Hayward, but neither of those match-ups is particularly favorable. That alignment also opens the door for Jazz guard Rodney Hood, who hit four three-pointers in Game 5 and could prove to be a series-changing X-factor in Game 6.
Before Griffin’s injury, Utah was forced to contain and react to his athleticism and versatility. Since his injury, however, the length and interchangeability of the Jazz’s deep perimeter corps has slowly overwhelmed the Clippers’ wings. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming off the bench who have been starters,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We finished the game with Rodney and Joe Johnson, two guys that aren’t starters. That’s one of the good things about this group: I don’t think guys care that much about whether they’re starting or not.”
As a potentially decisive Game 6 looms, both coaches were on script: Rivers promised that the Clippers were “not going to quit,” while Snyder noted that his young Jazz team continues to find itself in “a position we haven’t been in” before. Both comments felt like indirect references to Paul: Rivers can count on a tenacious effort from his floor general, and Snyder knows that Hayward, Hood and company must still overcome their relative inexperience one more time against a player who has pulled the Clippers through seven-game series against the Grizzlies and Spurs.
While the scope of Paul’s impact in these playoffs hasn’t quite risen to Russell Westbrook levels, the Clippers are +15 with him on the court and -15 when he is on the bench. That tidy mirroring effect takes on an even greater meaning once one considers that all five games in this series have been decided by eight or fewer points. Rivers might be wringing his hands over Paul’s fatigue, but there’s no question who the coach will lean on most forcefully in front of a hostile crowd in Utah come Friday.
In truth, the last two-plus games without Griffin have made it clear that there’s only one person standing between the Clippers and a momentous off–season, only one person standing between the Jazz and a second-round date with the Warriors. That person, of course, is Paul, who has been doing this long enough to understand the stakes better than anyone.