On a night when the LA Clippers needed to go the distance with the Utah Jazz, they ran out of gas just short of the finish line.
LA was in control for most of the game and had a strong opening half, but the fatigue from closing out hard-fought seven-game series with the Dallas Mavericks seemed to catch up to them late as they struggled to overcome a weak third quarter in their 109-112 loss in Game 1.
"We came out in the third quarter a little sluggish, not making the right play and not making the right shots, and they got going offensively," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. "I thought [Utah's] physicality in the second half picked up, picking up full court, getting to us and being physical, and we didn't match that physicality on the offensive end."
To their credit, the Clippers were in control for much of the first half. Utah jumped out to a quick 10-2 lead in the first quarter, but LA recovered with a 23-8 run of their own to end the opening frame with a seven-point lead. The Clippers continued to hit their shots in the second, extending their lead to 13 points by halftime.
LA's offense was clicking, but there was reason to be concerned about the remaining 24 minutes. Luke Kennard was the team's leading scorer going into the break, and it clearly looked like Lue was trying to get his starters some extra rest by going deep into his bench.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard appeared to be struggling the most in the first half, combining for just 12 points on 3-13 shooting from the field. The pair looked exhausted, which was to be expected. After all, they played nearly every minute of LA's final two games against the Dallas Mavericks as they fought to extend their season.
Fatigue caught up to the Clippers in the second half, and the Jazz knew it would be coming. They pounced on LA in the third quarter, outscoring them 32-19 along the way and forcing a tie going into the final frame. Utah kept up the pressure in the fourth, trading buckets with the Clippers before they were finally able to pull away.
Facing a 103-93 deficit with a little more than five minutes to play, LA could have easily given up and looked ahead to Game 2, but it continued to fight. George scored nine points in the last five minutes, with his final bucket bringing the Clippers within three in the closing seconds.
LA got a chance to send the game to overtime, but Marcus Morris Sr. had his last-second three-point attempt blocked by Rudy Gobert. With that, the Clippers officially fell behind in the series.
There's a lot to look at ahead of Game 2 on Thursday night, so let's not waste any time getting into our takeaways.
Coach Lue Goes Deep
Tyronn Lue made some interesting rotational decisions in the first half of Game 1. In what could be interpreted as an attempt to get his starters some in-game rest, Lue played six different bench players — including DeMarcus Cousins, who didn't see any action against Dallas — and saw his gamble pay off.
LA's bench was very productive in the opening half, combining for 27 points on 9-16 shooting from the field and 5-9 from three-point range. For reference, LA's starters scored 33 points on 11-26 shooting over the same period of time.
The group was led by Kennard, who poured in 11 points in his first 12 minutes of action. The 24-year-old shot the ball with confidence and didn't hesitate to fire away from beyond the arc, even when he had a hand in his face. Considering how passive he had been at times this season, seeing him rise to the occasion was a welcome development.
"They were just finding me, and it goes back to where we were attacking and just kicking it out to open guys," Kennard said after the game. "For me, it's just being ready to shoot and with a couple plays that we ran, just some misdirection stuff that works."
Kennard finished the game with 18 points in 29 minutes of action and, despite his reputation as a poor defender, played reasonably well on that end of the floor.
Lue said Game 1 allowed him to see who can and can't play in the series, so while it seems unlikely that he goes 11-deep again, one would have to assume that Kennard has earned himself a spot in the rotation moving forward.
LA's Starters Struggle
After dominating their first-round series with the Mavericks, LA's starters struggled to produce in Game 1 against the Jazz.
The trio of George, Leonard and Morris Sr. — a group that dropped 73 points on Dallas in Sunday's Game 7 — scored 52 points on 50 shots on Tuesday night. Most of their shots fell short, clanking off the front of the basket, though the rim wasn't particularly forgiving, either.
It wasn't just that their shots didn't fall, though. Their passing wasn't nearly as crisp as it had been against Dallas, and Leonard looked as though he was fouling out of frustration at times. Neither issue was exclusive to Leonard — Reggie Jackson fouled out of the game despite playing just 17 minutes and was held completely in check in the second half, picking up four fouls and two assists in less than six minutes.
Exhaustion almost certainly played a role in their struggles. Jackson went exceptionally hard against the Mavericks. George got a mere six and a half minutes of rest in Games 6 and 7. Morris Sr. ground himself to a pulp on defense vs. Dallas.
Fortunately, their minutes were all down on Tuesday night, and coupled with getting the day off on Wednesday, there's reason to believe they won't be nearly as fatigued in Game 2.
Ivica Zubac Earns Himself a Larger Role
Kennard was LA's best bench player on Tuesday night, but Ivica Zubac wasn't far behind. After playing a limited role in the first round, the 24-year-old big stuffed the stat sheet and imposed his will on both ends of the floor in Game 1.
Zubac collected 11 points, six rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 20 minutes of action, thoroughly outplaying Utah big Derrick Favors.
After the game, Lue hinted at Zu's role increasing moving forward.
"I think having a bigger role," Lue said. "I think Zu was great tonight, really protecting the paint. I thought he did a good job, blocked a couple shots, rebounded the basketball, just being a big body inside and being physical. Zu was great tonight, so it was good to see."
Lue still opted to start Nicolas Batum at the five in Game 1, as the veteran forward excelled in LA's small-ball lineup in the first round. Batum had a solid outing, but it's worth wondering if Lue will consider moving Zubac back into the starting rotation as the series progresses.
Clippers fans won't have to wait long to find out what his decision will be, as the LA Clippers will return to action on Thursday night for Game 2.