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NBA Playoffs 2017: Clippers Fail to Capitalize, Lose Game 1 on Jazz Buzzer Beater, 97-95

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The Clippers let a a golden opportunity to take control of the series slip away, as Utah played suffocating defense and rode a vintage Joe Johnson performance to victory.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Rather than take a timeout after Chris Paul tied the game with a running bank shot with precious seconds ticking off the clock, Quin Snyder let his team play, entrusting them to get a good look at a game-winner — and that they did. Joe Johnson took Jamal Crawford off the dribble and lofted a floater over the outstretched arm of a helping DeAndre Jordan, getting a friendly bounce from the rim that dropped the ball through the net just as time expired. It was a fitting end for a game in which the 35-year-old Johnson torched the Clippers, leading the Jazz in scoring with 21 points and playing remarkable defense on Blake Griffin in the second half.

There was never a question of who deserved the win more, as Utah battled relentlessly despite losing their defensive anchor, soon-to-be All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, in the opening minute of the game. As Gobert planted his feet to set a screen to free Gordon Hayward, Luc Mbah a Moute fought over top the pick and banged knees with Gobert in the process, who immediately fell to the floor, unable to put any pressure on his left leg. The injury was initially diagnosed as a sprained knee, and Shams Charania of The Vertical has since reported that a post-game MRI showed a bone bruise and hyperextension, but fortunately no structural damage. The Gobert—Jordan matchup was amongst the most fascinating storylines of this series, and it would be a real shame if Gobert was forced to miss extended time in his first postseason.

Though his availability will be a major factor that could swing the remainder of this series, the Jazz reminded us all that they’ve remained a very good team despite enduring an avalanche of injuries this season. That said, though he finished the game with a double-double (10 points, 15 rebounds), DeAndre Jordan’s performance left a lot to be desired in the absence of Gobert. Facing off against Derrick Favors and Jeff Withey, Jordan was unable to take advantage of his clear physical advantage and disappeared on the offensive end for large chunks of the game. When Gobert went down it seemed inevitable that the Clippers would feast in the paint, but they were ultimately bested 42-40 by a Jazz team whose generous ball movement facilitated easy looks in the lane.

Apparently unfazed by the loss of their big man, Utah ramped up their perimeter defense, disrupting what felt like every Clippers’ offensive set and rendering an offense that had been the most efficient in the league leading into the playoffs useless. Their aggressive ball denial of J.J. Redick and staunch post defense on Griffin forced the Clippers to play a stagnant, isolation-heavy style of offense that has proven not to be a sustainable recipe for success in the past.

Redick is the engine that makes the Clippers’ offense run, and the Jazz gameplanned him to perfection, attacking him with rangy wing Joe Ingles, who gave him fits running off screens and prevented him from getting off uncontested looks thanks to his length. J.J. finished with only 7 points on 6 shots, and, clearly flustered, committed 4 turnovers. When the Clippers are unable to get Redick involved early in the shot clock, their offense tends to sputter, losing all rhythm and forcing them to rely on the individual talents of Paul and Griffin to create open looks out of thin air.

Before disappearing in the second half, Blake paced the offense with a magical first half, pouring in 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting when nobody else was able to muster more than 6. Though Chris tallied 10 assists, he only attempted 4 shots in the half, often passing up open looks to get his teammates involved. Whether by design or not, the Clippers can’t afford any more passive play from Paul - he’s far too talented and capable of singlehandedly taking over a game to simply pass up opportunities to assert his will, no matter the situation. As he proved in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of the Clippers’ final 16 points including the game-tying bucket with 13 seconds remaining, whenever he steps on the court in this series, he will be the best player on the floor. The Clippers will need him in attack mode from the opening tip if they’re going to be able to find open shots amidst Utah’s defensive pressure.

On defense, the Clippers were able to mostly contain Gordon Hayward, as Luc Mbah a Moute did an excellent job corralling the skilled small forward, particularly in the first half. However, strong shooting performances from George Hill, Boris Diaw, and of course, Joe Johnson, had the Jazz shooting 53.8% before the break. Though their efficiency slipped in the second half, so too did the Clippers defensive intensity, as they too often allowed Utah to dictate matchups that they were looking to exploit. Rather than fight hard through screens, the Clippers were all too willing to switch everything, giving the Jazz predictable opportunities to feed Johnson and Hayward the ball against smaller defenders. Given the success that Mbah a Moute had against Hayward in the first half, the Clippers would be wise to commit to him as Hayward’s primary defender for as many possessions per game as is possible.

In the end, the Jazz simply outplayed the Clippers on both ends of the floor. Their stellar perimeter defense more than made up for the lack of rim protection sans Gobert, and their ability to move the ball led to far easier looks than the Clippers were able to generate on the other end. With no definitive word on when to expect Gobert’s return, it’s clear that the Clippers have their hands full with this Utah team in a series that looks like it certainly could go the distance.

Game Notes:

  • Keep Your Head — DeAndre Jordan picked up a costly technical foul in the fourth quarter after a questionable foul call on a contested defensive rebound went against him. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Clippers have battled technical foul demons, and giving a free point to the opponent, particularly with 4:28 left in a back-and-forth playoff game, isn’t going to fly. Not known for keeping their composure all that well in the playoffs, the Clippers are going to need to control their emotions as the games will only intensify from here.
  • The Bench is Key — Boy, did the Clippers miss Austin Rivers tonight. While they were only able to notch 20 bench points, their counterparts on the Jazz bench amassed 47, nearly half of their total score. As it’s now the playoffs, the rotation shortened to include just Mo Speights, Crawford, and Raymond Felton (and for reasons for which no logic exists, 3 minutes of Paul Pierce), and the latter two struggled mightily to make their impact felt on the game. In 29 minutes, Jamal Crawford did nothing to shake his reputation as a poor playoff performer, coming out of the gates with confidence, but shooting 1-6 in the second half as the Clippers desperately searched for any sort of offensive boost. Utah’s bench was always going to be a strength heading into this series, but the Clippers are going to need a lot more from the guys who come in to spell the starters as they await Rivers’ return.
  • Push. The. Pace. — The Jazz love to slow the game down to a crawl, and the Clippers weren’t able to take advantage of as many transition opportunities as they’ll need to in order to make them uncomfortable. Chris and Blake looked to push the pace early, and again in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, but as we saw over and over again, once set, Utah’s half court defense is potent. The easiest way to combat that, is to simply not let them get set up in the first place. Moving forward, the Clippers would be wise to emphasize pushing the ball upcourt any time there is a sliver of opportunity.

The Clippers will be back in action on Tuesday night at Staples Center as they look to even the series at 1-1. The Clippers will need to regroup quickly, as the Jazz proved to be formidable even in Gobert’s absence. This puzzling loss will hopefully serve as a wakeup call for a team that is too talented to be shut down so easily, as a loss Tuesday would be catastrophic for a Clippers squad with the future of the organization on the line. No pressure.