LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.
However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.
Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.
It also came with a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night. Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.
Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing Game 4 with food poisoning. This time he made the Clippers sick, with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson late in the game that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.
“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”
The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a strong passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.
Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.
“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”
That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.
The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing looks.
Utah pushed the lead to 11 in the fourth after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.
Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures.
There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the questions will begin.