LOS ANGELES – The very first night of the playoffs had just ended, and yet the Clippers were already out of time for pleasantries.
Doc Rivers, tie loose and jacket off, scrunched up his face as a reporter quizzed him about LA’s late-game strategy. “That makes no sense,” the coach interjected bluntly, shaking his head and adopting the tone of a full-on lecture. “That is, like, the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
This flash of frank talk came off as pure projection, a jolting reminder that Rivers’s Clippers entered the postseason under a more ominous cloud than any of the other 15 teams in the field. LA has been building to this pressure-packed moment for years—its last stand before Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick hit free agency—and had been rounding into good form in recent weeks.
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But any positive momentum generated by a seven-game winning streak disappeared Saturday when Utah’s Joe Johnson delivered a 97-95 Game 1 win at Staples Center with a crowd-silencing runner at the buzzer. Johnson’s shot not only swiped home-court advantage, it laid bare Utah’s biggest advantage over LA in the match-up: comfort amidst adversity.
On paper, the Clippers hold two major positional match-ups that could still decide this series: Chris Paul over George Hill and Blake Griffin over a cast of Jazz forwards. They are also the more experienced of the two teams, and they have prevailed in playoff series against tougher competition than these Jazz. However, Utah’s ingrained ability to roll with the punches proved to be the pivotal factor in Game 1, an attribute that was tested on the first play of the series.
Mere seconds after winning the jump ball, Jazz center Rudy Gobert moved to set a screen for Gordon Hayward, only to knock legs with Clippers forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The contact sent the Frenchman to the ground, where he clutched his leg and eventually had to be helped to the locker room.
A post-game MRI revealed no ligament damage, but Utah’s most reliable player—the backbone of its elite defense and a key piece of its grinding offense—is now a question mark for the balance of the series after being diagnosed with a hyperextended left knee and a bone bruise. Gobert led the Jazz in rebounds, blocks and minutes played, missing just one game all season while the lineups juggled around him, and here he was getting knocked out of his playoff debut after one minute.
Many teams would have folded in such circumstances. As it happens, the Clippers watched their 2016 postseason crumble in the wake of injuries to Paul and Griffin.
But Utah’s resolve held strong, weathering some shooting struggles right after Gobert departed, a 20-point first half from Griffin, and a late push by Paul to tie the game in the game’s closing seconds. The Jazz kept playing through early foul trouble, they kept forcing turnovers by sending extra help at Griffin, and they kept going to Johnson (21 points on 9-of-14 shooting), who masterfully pressed his offensive game when needed. Without Gobert, Utah turned to a smaller lineup built around Derrick Favors in the middle, a look that succeeded in beating the Clippers’ help defense with well-timed drives and passes.
The Clippers, by contrast, tightened up at times and blew up at others: J.J. Redick struggled to free himself from Utah’s perimeter defenders, Jamal Crawford missed multiple open looks at crucial threes down the stretch, Griffin committed six turnovers as he attempted to force the issue against an overloading defense, and a frustrated DeAndre Jordan was whistled for a technical foul late in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s winner encapsulated the difference in temperament and awareness between the two teams in Game 1. With the score tied by a Paul runner with 13.1 seconds left, the Jazz elected not to call timeout and instead gave the ball to Johnson. There was no hesitation or hurry from the veteran forward, who worked his way into the frontcourt and sized up the defense. He then took full advantage once he realized he could force the Clippers to switch Jamal Crawford—a smaller and less physical player—onto him.
The final five seconds were academic, given the match-up and LA’s delayed help. Johnson worked his way down to the protected circle, encountering little resistance from Crawford, and tossed up a little runner that rimmed home as time expired.
“I was just being patient,” Johnson said afterwards. “In those moments, guys aren’t going to help. You’re on an island by yourself and they expect [the defender] to get that stop. Nobody wants their man to score, so I was just trying to be patient, get to a sweet spot, and make the right play.”
It was all far too easy: Johnson got his mismatch, got to his spot, worked the clock, and took his shot as the Clippers effectively watched it happen. Griffin swiped down on the drive but only drew air, Jordan came over late but found it difficult to contest the shot in traffic, and Paul hugged tightly to Hayward, even as the clock ticked below three seconds. On the deciding possession of a playoff game, LA allowed Utah’s most accomplished scorer to attack its weakest defensive link, and no Clippers player realized what had happened until Johnson was fist-pumping his way down the sideline in victory.
LA can take heart in a few things: Gobert’s absence creates a major rotational hole and forces Utah to deploy untested lineup combinations, the Clippers’ perimeter shooting can’t be much worse than it was in Game 1, and the Jazz will be scrounging for offense whether or not Johnson can keep up his heroics as the series progresses. Both Paul and Griffin can play more effectively too: the former started cold, while the latter’s athleticism and power should wear on Utah’s smaller lineups.
“The series doesn’t start until somebody loses at home,” Paul told reporters. “I guess that [loss] started it. … Now we’ve got to see what we’re made of.”
Needless to say, it’s disturbing that composition and composure remain question marks for a team that’s been together for so long and has so much at stake.