The Big Picture:
The Clippers aren’t predators, but they’re very elusive prey. It’s a trend we’ve seen over the years, and it’s come up again in this series: LAC tends to lack the killer instinct to capture and kill a wounded enemy, but they achieve improbably success when narrowly escaping a hunter. It’s never been truer than in this series, where the Clippers, who were heavily favored to advance, could have actually pulled off a sweep had they capitalized on the absences of Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward in games 1 and 4, respectively. Instead, they came up short, and faced a 3-2 deficit going into a potentially season-ending game 6 in Utah.
Then, beaten up, playing poorly, and facing elimination on the road, the Chris Paul-era Clippers did what they did best: barely escaped. Just when it looked like they had a chance to really ice the game against the Jazz, the Clippers allowed a late run that almost cost them their season. Joe Johnson had a three-point attempt in the closing seconds that could have tied the game, despite the Clippers holding a 14-point lead earlier in the quarter, but he missed, and L.A. did what we’ve seen them do over and over again—barely escape.
Now, the question is how elusive these Clippers can truly be without Blake Griffin. They managed to escape an incredibly difficult Game 6 in Utah, but can they escape this series by pulling off a Game 7 victory against a Jazz team that is now just as desperate, facing elimination on their end as well? It’s premature to worry about anything past Sunday afternoon, and it’s pointless to worry about anything that came before it—right now, the Clippers have two potential paths: extend your season, or don’t.
The Utah Jazz have to be feeling just as frustrated with this series as the Clippers are. They stole a game without Rudy Gobert, and another without Gordon Hayward, and they won a crucial game 5 on the road—and yet, at full strength and playing at home, they put together what may have been their worst performance of the series in game 6, when they could have clinched the series. Just as L.A. is frustrated to lose Blake Griffin for the entire post-season once again, the Jazz must be looking at this series wondering “what if...” when they consider Gobert’s absence in two losses.
Still, the Jazz have a lot of reason to have confidence going into Sunday’s game 7. They’ve won two of the three games in L.A. so far in this series (isn’t it peculiar that the home team is 2-4 so far?), and even in wins, the Clippers haven’t proven that they have a consistent answer defensively for Quin Snyder’s go-to small-ball lineup, which features Joe Johnson at the power forward position.
For the young Jazz, this is a huge moment on a huge stage. This is the only first-round series to reach a decisive seventh game, and the current crop of talent from Utah has barely sniffed the playoffs, much less a game 7. Will they shine under the brightest lights of their careers, or be hesitant against a much more seasoned Clippers team playing in their fifth game 7 together? Based on Utah’s performance so far in the post-season, I’m guessing the former. Despite their youth, the Jazz’s defensive identity and confidence has led to some sharp play in the first six games of this series. Every time the Clippers have punched, the Jazz have found a counterpunch. I wouldn’t expect game 7 to go any differently.