The Big Picture:
The Clippers are one loss away from their second 1st round exit in a row. The 6th year of the Chris Paul era, a loss would mean yet another failure to get the Western Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals proper. The thought of the Clippers’ slipping has already prompted several long articles and thinkpieces on the past and future of the Clippers’ franchise, and more are sure to come if they fall to the Jazz in game 6.
More importantly, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick are all free agents this summer (or could be with opt-out clauses). Their future with the Clippers hangs in the balance, especially considering Blake’s injury, JJ’s struggles for most of the series, and Chris’ being forced to carry the team on his back to an alarming degree. Will Blake want to get a clean start somewhere else? Does JJ want to go to a more legit contender as he heads into his mid-30s? Will Chris Paul be tempted by a Banana Boat reunion somewhere outside of LA, or by the prospect of joining up with the unkillable Spurs and a rising superstar in Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio? These are just some of the questions that are going to be asked this summer, questions that could spell the end of the Lob City era as we know it.
This series isn’t over, however, and the Clippers could still pull off a victory in Game 6. The Jazz appear to be a better team at this point, but the series net differential is 0, and the Clippers have the best player in the series (by far) in Chris Paul. They need to come out hard, with a lot of energy, and hit the Jazz early before they can get going and the crowd starts rolling. Chris Paul absolutely must be aggressive to start, as the Clippers can’t get behind early. Of course, he needs help, and help has been decidedly lacking this series. If the Clippers’ role players don’t step up, Chris Paul’s heroics probably won’t matter.
I expect that the Clippers have heard all the chatter about the potential demise of their team, and will be trying to prove that wrong. For as much as Clippers’ fans have complained about their team’s lack of passion and effort at times, the Clips have played the Jazz tough this series, and have refused to give up when the Jazz opened somewhat sizable leads. The Clippers are a veteran team, and they aren’t going to lay down and die. That mentality should be enough to keep them in this game, and anything can happen down the stretch, especially with Chris Paul on the roster.
The Utah Jazz have to be feeling pretty, pretty good right now. They have a chance to close out the series at home, as they have captured homecourt advantage for the second time in this series. The Jazz have done so despite losing Rudy Gobert for three games and Gordon Hayward for the better part of a game. Now mostly healthy (outside 10th man Alec Burks being unavailable with a knee injury), the Jazz appear poised to move into the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time in almost a decade.
Significantly, the Clippers just don’t seem to have any answers for what the Jazz are doing. The Jazz have a size or athleticism advantage (or both) at almost every position, and that’s something that’s hard to mitigate. When the Jazz put Gordon Hayward next to Joe Johnson, the Clippers have been baffled by how to guard them. Luc Mbah a Moute can’t guard them both, and the rest of the Clippers’ roster (outside of Austin Rivers) is too small or too slow to check either guy. When the Clippers have doubled either of those guys, the Jazz have whipped the ball around the court, the Clippers’ scrambling has inevitably failed, the Jazz ended up with a wide open three. Sticking to man on man coverage hasn’t worked, though hopefully Austin Rivers getting more minutes should help.
Anyway, the Jazz are going to have a raucous crowd tonight in Utah, they are probably confident after two straight victories, and they have all their key players available for big minutes. Perhaps a hope for the Clippers is that the Jazz come out a bit complacent, but that’s unlikely when they are so well coached by Quin Snyder. They are a good team, and a tough team, and they don’t have many weaknesses that the Clippers can exploit.
The Individual Plotlines:
JJ Redick’s Shooting: After an abysmal first four games in the series, JJ was able to get back on track in Game 5, scoring 26 points on 7-12 shooting. That’s a classic JJ line, and one he needs to repeat for the Clippers to win Game 6 (and any potential Game 7). With Blake Griffin out, the Clippers are even more reliant on Redick’s offense than they usually are, and he’s been the key cog of their offense for the past three years. The key to JJ’s play in Game 5 was not forcing things. Instead of rushing shots and passes, leading to clanks and turnovers respectively, he faked shots and drove to the basket for free throws and floaters. Those plays will be available with the Jazz overplaying his three-point shot so heavily, and he must take advantage.
Starting Lineup Conundrum: The Jazz have exploited Marreese Speights’ defense every moment he’s been on the floor, and it was particularly cruel in Game 5—he was a minus 10 in just 13 minutes. Speights hasn’t been able to make them pay on the other end, as he’s shooting just 33% from three and 38% overall. Starting him doesn’t seem like a good plan. However, the Clippers’ other traditional power forwards haven’t impressed either. Paul Pierce is a waste of space on an NBA court in 2017, Wes Johnson is little better, and Brandon Bass is too slow to stick with the Jazz when they go small. Instead, the Clippers should think about starting Ray Felton, and forcing Joe Ingles or Boris Diaw to score one on one. If they do, props to them. They might have a size advantage over Felton and Redick respectively (Luc would still be on Gordon Hayward), but they aren’t really individual scorers. Felton’s presence will relieve some of the pressure on Paul to create every play, and he has been mostly terrific in this series. If he isn’t cutting it on defense or the glass, Austin Rivers can be brought in. But it’s probably best to keep him on the bench to preserve his minutes for crucial stretches when he’s really needed.
Defending Joe Johnson: I think the Clippers will need to put Luc Mbah a Moute on Joe Johnson in crunch time (if it comes down to it). Austin Rivers can do a credible job on Hayward, but he’s just too small to bother Johnson in the post. If need be, Paul can also cover Hayward for short stretches, while Austin moves to George Hill or Joe Ingles. Double teaming him is a fine option if he’s scorching hot, but they need to be better about it than they were in Game 5. Luc in particular hedged too far several times on pick and rolls, letting Johnson get free in the midrange, where he is deadliest. Trying to be a bit sneakier about when and where they double could pay dividends in Game 6, as double teams work best when the player isn’t expecting one to happen.
This is obviously a must win game for the Clippers. I would love to see a win to bring the series back to Los Angeles, but, as always, I won’t be disappointed as long as they play hard and play smart. I expect Chris Paul to have a game for the ages, and perhaps the brilliance of the Point God will turn the tide, just as he has done so many times before. If this is the final time we see Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, JJ Redick, or even Doc Rivers on the Clippers bench, well, it has been a great six (or four) years. All those guys have important places in Clippers’ history, and that’s a huge understatement. This has been the best Clippers team ever, and it would be a shame for Lob City to end this way. Maybe it won’t, and the Clippers will get a shot to move on in a Game 7. No matter what the result of Game 6, it has been an amazing ride. Let’s enjoy these players while we have them.