With 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter of game 5, Chris Paul hit a pair of free throws to pull the Clippers within 3 points of the visiting Utah Jazz. Tied at 2-2 in the series, George Hill brought the ball up. Joe Johnson, being guarded by Luc Mbah a Moute, came up to set a ball screen, Mbah a Moute hedged heavily, and Johnson slipped the screen, hitting a fadeaway mid-range jumper over the scrambling Clippers’ defense to ice the game for the Jazz.
It was the third time that Johnson’s late-game heroics had won for the Jazz, as his physicality and floor-spacing continue to perplex L.A.’s defense. After 160 minutes to try different looks against Johnson in this series, the Clippers still came up short in the closing seconds of a crucial five.
And with that, the game was over. Allowing Johnson a quality look at a dagger was far from the Clippers’ only mistake in a game marked by sloppy turnovers, poor shooting, and insufficient rebounding, but it was perhaps their most profound. While the other factors all contribute to a loss, Doc Rivers’ inability to put together a defense that can contain Utah’s spaced-out fourth quarter lineups has defined all three losses in this series, and it’s the main factor that likely inspires the Jazz’s confidence in game six of this series.
Perhaps it’s simply a personnel issue for the Clippers, who lack the wing bodies to match up with Utah’s lanky cast of Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Gordon Hayward, and Johnson. Doc Rivers reached deep into his bench in this crucial game, playing 11 men and giving Brandon Bass his first look of the series, but from Bass to Wesley Johnson to Paul Pierce, none have emerged as a reliable option against Utah’s wing scorers. This is a likely indication of the disaster that would have been—and still could be—the Clippers’ second-round series with the Golden State Warriors. If the aforementioned quartet of Jazz wings has proven unconquerable for the Clippers, one can only imagine the dissection Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Angre Iguodala, and Draymond Green would perform on the Clippers’ defense.
Still, the Clippers have the weapons and star power to overcome these shortcomings. Chris Paul had a tremendous 28 points and 9 assists after a slow start, and J.J. Redick came on late in the game for what was by far his best performance of the series, logging 26 points on just 12 field goal attempts. DeAndre Jordan, despite a lackluster game defensively and on the glass, was his usual efficient self, scoring 14 points on 6-8 from the field.
Unfortunately, the Clippers’ big three received little offensive help. Much-maligned veteran forward Paul Pierce was probably the Clippers third-most effective scorer of the game, and he only hit two threes in the first half. The other seven Clippers who appeared in this game combined to shoot 4-26 from the field. Jamal Crawford, fresh off of a stellar 25-point game 4, only added four points in 23 minutes tonight. Austin Rivers, in a much-anticipated return from a lingering hamstring injury, scored just 2 points on a pair of free throws. Mo Speights, starting his second game in place of the injured Blake Griffin, was 0-3 from the field and totaled just 1 point and 2 rebounds in 13 minutes of play.
The poor performance from the supporting cast kept CP3’s assist total under 10 for the first time this post-season, and limited the team to a +3 margin in his 38 minutes. More disappointing, however, was their inability to play when Paul rested. In the 10 minutes that Paul sat, the Clippers lost by 7 points. The two solutions to this going forward are clear—Chris Paul needs to play almost the entire game on Friday when L.A. faces elimination, and the Clippers need a secondary scorer like Crawford or Rivers to sustain the offense when Paul heads to the bench.
While individual Clippers continue to play well, the inconsistency and incohesiveness that has defined this series continued to do so tonight. The Clippers traded one hot secondary scorer (Crawford) for another (Redick) but were unable to run much successful offense outside of hero-ball, and spent much of the game suffering from defensive breakdowns. The intensity and urgency was lacking for stretches, despite Paul and Redick gutting out an epic fourth quarter in which they scored or assisted on 31 of the Clippers’ 34 points.
And, ultimately, the Clippers fell to the Jazz for the third time in five games, despite winning 18 of last the 20 match-ups between these teams prior to this series. Injuries, unusual performances, unexpected heroes—all play a role in series every year, and all have been in peak form during the last five games.
At this point, there’s nothing for the veteran Clippers to do but prepare for Friday’s elimination game in Salt Lake City. With their backs against the wall, will we finally see L.A. play a complete game? Or will this season—and quite possibly, this era—end in the disappointing and unfulfilling manner to which Clippers fans are all to accustomed? I won’t pretend to know the answer, but history certainly indicates the latter.