The Big Picture:
There’s a lot of noise around the Clippers right now, both in the big picture and within this series. Ever-present, looming over the head of Chris Paul, is his lack of playoff success during his career. The constant calls to blow up this team’s core is exacerbated by the impending free agencies of Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick. Griffin’s injury in game 3 has only fueled that talk, as has Redick’s remarkably disappointing performance in the first four games of this series. Doc Rivers is nearing the end of his fourth campaign as the Clippers’ head coach and president of basketball operations, and a series of miscues have combined with a lack of a second-round series victory to put his name at the center of plenty of rumors.
So yeah, there’s a lot of noise. And sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. A lot of these narratives, as ugly as they are to address from a Clippers fan’s perspective, have at least partial merit.
But once you zoom in, a lot of that fades away. It’s like the free throw shooter, who could hear a pin drop despite the roaring din of a crowd just twenty feet away. Sure, there’s free agency and a coach on the hot seat, there’s the debate on ESPN and critical fans on twitter, but it all boils down to this: the Clippers got the split that they needed in games 3 and 4 in Utah, and now they have home-court advantage in a best-2-out-of-3 series to determine who will advance.
They’ll have to be at their best, especially without Blake Griffin. A lack of urgency and poor performances by the supporting cast (except for Jamal Crawford) cost the Clippers game 4, where they were handed a golden opportunity to steal another game as Gordon Hayward played just 9 minutes as he dealt with food poisoning. Instead, they failed to build a sufficient lead and fell apart offensively down the stretch as Joe Johnson took over for the Jazz. Four games into this series, the Clippers have no answer to Johnson other than to outscore him. The outcome of L.A.’s season could come down to whether or not they can contain him.
For the Utah Jazz, things are looking up. Due to heroics from Joe Johnson, Utah has launched two fourth-quarter runs to steal two games that the Clippers probably should have won. In game 1 of the series, with Rudy Gobert going down with a knee injury, the Clippers failed to exercise a killer instinct and left the door open for a Johnson buzzer-beater. In game 4, despite Gordon Hayward’s absence, Johnson went on an unstoppable offensive rampage down the stretch, scoring at will against Luc Mbah a Moute’s elite defense and then finding open shooters when the Clippers sent double-teams.
As a result, the Jazz have managed to play the entire series up to this point missing one of their two best players, and yet they’re heading into game 5 tied 2-2. Sure, they would have liked to retain home-court advantage after stealing game 1, but even dragging this series to 6 or 7 games would have been an acceptable outcome for Utah. Now, with Griffin done for the series, the Clippers’ supporting cast struggling, and Gobert and Hayward preparing to share the floor for extended minutes for the first time on Tuesday, Utah has to be feeling like a series win is well within their grasp.
Austin Rivers should play for the Clippers after missing the first four games of the series. For more analysis on his potential impact, check out my article on his return.
Rudy Gobert should play for the Jazz, although I’m not sure if his minutes will be continue to be restricted. Gobert had 15 points and 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes in game 4.
Gordon Hayward traveled to L.A. with the Jazz, although we haven’t heard how he’s feeling following missing most of game 4 with food poisoning. Considering that he tried to play in game 4, I’d expect him to be recovered enough to play in game 5.