In the first half it seemed everything went wrong for the Clippers.
First, Gordon Hayward went off for a Utah playoff record 21 points in the quarter on 7-of-8 shooting (he would finish the night with 40). Then late in the first half Blake Griffin suffered a bruised big toe — may well be a turf-toe injury — and he had to leave the game. Los Angeles was down 13 after one quarter and nine at the half, but more than that it was hard to see a path back to the win.
Then Chris Paul took over — he was the embodiment of the point god. CP3 had 24 second half points, he was attacking the paint or dishing to DeAndre Jordan rolling down the lane, and more than all that he completely controlled the flow of the contest.
He sparked a 15-0 Clipper run in the fourth — when the Jazz went scoreless for more than six minutes — to get Los Angeles a lead they would hold on to for a 115-111 road win.
The Clippers are now up 2-1 in the series with Game 4 in Utah Sunday.
“We can deal with adversity,” Paul said in a televised interview about what this game showed. “That’s one of our biggest hurdles, things that we’re trying to overcome.”
Playoff injuries have ended so many Clipper playoff runs in recent years, including last season when Paul and Griffin were injured in the first round allowing the Trail Blazers to advance. Griffin suffered his injury with just under four minutes to go in the second quarter, he had stolen the ball from Hayward and pushed it up himself, finishing a layup past Rodney Hood. After Griffin landed, he instantly started limping.
The X-rays on Griffin’s toe injury were negative, but there is no timetable yet for his return.
The injury set up the brilliance of Paul.
“The primary thing is the game becomes about Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said about the adjustments after Griffin’s injury. “He’s arguably the best person doing that in the league, in terms of manufacturing the whole court. So that puts a lot of stress on the defense.”
Paul came out in the second half and attacked the paint more aggressively — something he can do with Rudy Gobert still out injured for Utah — and he was 5-of-6 shooting inside eight feet of the rim in that stretch. His drive started to force defenders to him, and then he would find a rolling DeAndre Jordan for the lob, or he would kick out to an open shooter. Paul was covered by Ingles to start most of the night but worked hard to get Derrick Favors switched on to him, then attacked.
It all worked. Plus the Clippers stepped up their defensive pressure, and that threw the Jazz off balance. Hayward went cold (1-of-4 in the fourth) and Utah started leaning heavily on Joe Johnson to create shots for himself and others (he was 3-of-6 in the fourth), but the balance was gone from the Utah offense.
Even when they got good looks, they just missed them during that fourth-quarter stretch where Utah’s offense fell apart. That ended up being the ball game.
Behind a couple buckets from Johnson late Utah kept it close, but the Clippers hit enough free throws that the Jazz were forced into desperation shots and passes — both of which Hayward missed badly in the final minute.
Until Gobert returns, the Clippers have a formula that works with the CP3/Jordan pick and roll, with them getting into the paint. Los Angeles had a ridiculous offensive rating of 125.4 in this game, against one of the best defenses in the league.
It falls to Utah to slow down the Clippers a little (easier said than done). The Jazz have to get shots, then get some shots — particularly threes — to fall late. The ball is in Quin Snyder’s court to make some adjustments so Utah can even this series on Sunday. And if one of those adjustments is not “Gobert is back” he’s going to need to get creative, and get some role players to step up.