- The Clippers' season, and perhaps latest era, ended in shockingly hushed fashion on Sunday. But a multitude of decisions and questions are left to be made and answered.
LOS ANGELES – There was no explosion, no implosion, no technical fouls, no serious confrontations, no blaze of glory. They didn’t quit, point fingers at each other, or make excuses. No, the final loss of the Clippers’ season, and perhaps the end of an era, came quietly, tediously, sadly, with dead legs delivering the deathblow. Chris Paul and company didn’t lose their minds or their composure, as many anticipated; they simply ran out of gas.
The Jazz outlasted the Clippers 104-91 in Game 7 at the Staples Center on Sunday, advancing to the second round, where they will face the Warriors. This was the only first-round series to go the distance—a seven-game marathon decided by a total of eight points—and the deeper, younger and healthier Jazz simply held up better on the last leg.
Without Blake Griffin, who was lost to a toe injury in Game 3, and with the seemingly invincible Warriors looming, the Clippers passed on multiple opportunities to roll over in this series, gutting out wins in Game 4 and 6. The latter of those two wins, a thorough masterpiece from Paul supplemented with quality contributions from Austin Rivers and DeAndre Jordan, had owner Steve Ballmer dancing in his seat and coach Doc Rivers pumping his fist. LA had done enough to force Game 7, yet it had worked so hard that it had nothing left.
The Clippers came out choppy and then went cold. By halftime, they had managed just 39 points, their lowest first-half total of the entire season. Signs of fatigue were everywhere for an offense that ranked in the top-five during the regular season: Too many tough jumpers, too little ball movement and, as the night wore on, too many possessions ending with airballs and shot clock violations. At halftime, LA was just 5-18 shooting from outside the paint and had registered more turnovers (8) than assists (7), and Utah expanded its lead to 21 in the second half.
“I thought [Paul] got a little tired,” Rivers said, mulling over his team’s slow start offensively. “I thought a couple guys did. In the first half, we had Raymond [Felton] at the table trying to get Austin off the floor because he clearly was out of gas. We just had such a short rotation. It was very difficult.”
At the heart of LA’s struggles was Paul, whose fingerprints were all over his team’s successes in this series, as always since his 2011 arrival. The Clippers, without Griffin and facing a tough-minded opponent, weren’t in position to weather an off night from their All-Star point guard. Unfortunately, they received Paul’s least effective overall showing of the series (13 points and nine assists) and his worst shooting night in more than a month (6-19), as the Jazz’s regular trapping bothered him.
Whatever momentum LA generated early in the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to Jamal Crawford’s individual scoring ability, withered without Paul’s finishing touch. Two years after carrying LA to a dramatic Game 7 win over San Antonio, he went scoreless and missed all four of his attempts in the final period.
“Man, I know I’ve got to be better,” said Paul, who played through a second-half ankle tweak. “I’ve got to be better, especially in a Game 7 like this.”
To be clear, Paul shouldn’t be cast as the fall guy. His backcourt partner, JJ Redick, hounded into oblivion by Utah’s long wings, managed just 3 points in 22 minutes. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who provided small but crucial doses of complementary offense in this series, didn’t make a shot. Paul Pierce looked two or three steps slow throughout the final night of his illustrious career.
Griffin’s injury tilted all of the match-ups in Utah’s favor, too. Gordon Hayward was steely down the stretch, leading Utah with 26 points and eight rebounds to claim the first postseason series victory of his career. And, after spending months off the radar due to injury, Derrick Favors came through with 17 points and 11 rebounds in big minutes, more than compensating for Rudy Gobert’s foul-plagued no-show.
But Paul’s end-of-series fatigue and the nature of LA’s postseason exit are concerning, given the offseason decisions that are coming. Clearly, the Clippers would have been lost without Paul against the Jazz, just as they were bounced by the Blazers in last year’s postseason after he was injured. Paying Paul, who will turn 32 next week, a max contract to provide a winning foundation still qualifies as a no-brainer.
It must also be said, though, that sputtering out of the first round, against a good but not particularly fearsome Jazz team, should serve as a loud wake-up call. While Rivers has continued to cling to championship dreams, even evoking the John Stockton/Karl Malone Jazz in recent days, Paul’s inability to dictate the action and pull LA’s offense along to functional levels in the first half was jarring. The hopeful memories from LA’s electric 14-2 start gave way to this cold fact: On the biggest night of the season, it was Hayward, not Paul, who was the best player on the court. “The start don’t mean nothing,” Paul said. “It’s how you finish. Once again, we’re done.”
Paul’s subtle slippage matters because keeping together the roster around him is about to get extraordinarily expensive. Even though Ballmer has billions to blow, he must ask himself whether it’s worth paying through the nose to keep together an aging rotation that has been beset by injuries and has failed to reach its full potential. In addition to Griffin, who like Paul is a max candidate, Redick, Mbah a Moute, Felton and Marreese Speights are all free agents.
“I’m thinking about the loss today instead of the summer,” Rivers said after Game 7. “I’m sure everyone will have their own suggestions. We’ve been reading about our obituary for about three months now.”
Surely he’s braced for another two months of them. With Redick turning in another weak postseason showing and both Austin Rivers and Crawford already under contract for next season, the Duke sharpshooter looks like LA’s most expendable core piece. If Redick does depart, LA’s best option given its limited salary cap flexibility will likely be to promote Austin Rivers to the starting lineup and search for low-cost bench help. That’s a sideways step, at best.
Quietly, Mbah a Moute has become an indispensable wing defender for LA. Once Griffin went down, Rivers probably wished he could clone Mbah a Moute so as to better handle both Hayward and Joe Johnson. Paying what it takes to keep Mbah a Moute is only made more difficult by the fact that Rivers re-signed forward Wesley Johnson, who couldn’t get off the bench in the playoffs, to a three-year, $18 million last summer.
Griffin remains the biggest unknown, as he’s remained quiet about his free agency plans and hasn’t been able to hold up during the last two postseasons. If he re-signs, he would almost certainly come back to a roster that’s as thin or thinner than this year’s group, with yet another batch of minimum-salaried reserves filling out the rotation. He would also be signing up for another term as second fiddle to Paul. If Griffin bolts, however, LA’s status as a contender would almost certainly go with him, even if Rivers works quickly to re-tool around Paul and Jordan. In other words, Griffin will either need to make compromises to come back, or his exit will further compromise LA’s title dream.
In light of all these moving parts, Paul declined to offer his thoughts on what the Clippers need to add this summer, redirecting all questions to Rivers and the front office. “Luckily, [making roster suggestions] is not my job,” he said. “My job is to come in, try to make sure I’m in the best shape possible, try to lead our team, and stuff like that. That’s not my job to maneuver who’s here and who’s there.”
Late in the fourth quarter, with defeat imminent, Paul lost control of the ball on a drive and had to tie-up Joe Ingles. In apparent disgust and frustration, Paul kicked out his right leg as he stood over his opponent’s body. Had he connected with Ingles’ body or head, Paul would have been ejected and, in turn, he and his team would have been consumed by another round of controversy and scrutiny. But Paul’s leg lash drew only air, and the moment of tension fizzled into a somber countdown to the buzzer.
This time, the Clippers’ last chapter featured kicking, but no screaming.