LOS ANGELES (AP) The opening round of the NBA playoffs is down to the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, the only series to be extended to seven games.
The Clippers can finish off the Jazz on Sunday and advance to the Western Conference semifinals against Golden State, which has been waiting since Wednesday to find out its next opponent.
Whoever wins won’t have any rest. The Warriors host the series opener on Tuesday.
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Now in his 12th season, nine-time Clippers All-Star Chris Paul has yet to play in a conference finals.
”He is as competitive of a human being that I’ve ever been around,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. ”When you put that with the talent and will, that’s why he has performances like this in big games.”
Paul had 28 points, eight assists, three rebounds and four turnovers playing 38 minutes in a 98-93 win on Friday.
”Doc said go out there and give yourself a chance,” Paul said.
During a timeout, he looked over at 39-year-old teammate Paul Pierce, who plans to retire at the end of the season, his 19th.
”I said, `You’re not ending your career in Utah,”’ Paul said. ”We just said we’re going to keep this thing going for him.”
With Paul doing the heavy lifting, Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute and Austin Rivers combined to score 38 points while making up for the loss of Blake Griffin, who is out for the rest of the season with a big-toe injury.
Without Griffin, Paul has been forced into doing the majority of the ball handling, and he appeared tired near the end of the Clippers’ loss in Game 5. Doc Rivers changed things up in Game 6 and surrounded Paul with fellow guards Crawford, Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton.
”That helped a lot,” Paul said.
The first six games between the fourth-seeded Clippers and No. 5 Utah have been decided by eight points or less. It’s been so close that the teams are averaging 98 points each. They had identical 51-31 records in the regular season.
”This series has been a roller coaster for both teams,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
The Clippers can draw on past experience heading into Game 7.
Two years ago, they won an elimination game in San Antonio and came home to win Game 7 by two points in the first round. In 2014, they beat the Warriors in a Game 7 at home in the first round.
The young Jazz isn’t as playoff-tested, which is why they brought in veterans Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and George Hill to surround Gordon Hayward and Joe Ingles.
”We know what they’re going to run and they know what we’re going to run,” Hayward said. ”It’s about execution. It’s about who wants it more, so we’ve got to be the team that wants it more.”
Jazz at Clippers, Series tied 3-3, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPN
NEED TO KNOW: The Clippers are 3-3 all-time in Game 7s. The Jazz is 1-0 all-time in Game 7s in the first round. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2010.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Johnson. Utah’s big-shot specialist watched an off-balance, potential game-tying 3-pointer clank off the rim late in Game 6. It was one of his few misses under pressure in the series. He hit the winning shot in Game 1, scored 28 points in Game 4 and took over in the fourth quarter of Game 5. Iso Joe may not be done yet.
INJURY UPDATE: Gobert sustained a mild ankle sprain Friday. X-rays were negative and he’s expected to be fine for Sunday.
PRESSURE IS ON: The Clippers. Since 2013, they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs after owning leads in every series. If they lose, Griffin and Paul will be one step closer to being able to opt out of their contracts and J.J. Redick will become a free agent this summer.