Clippers use power to take Game 2, but win was far from convincing

LOS ANGELES -- It felt like an egg race -- someone balancing an oval object on a spoon and scurrying to the finish. It wasn't a between-quarters event sponsored by the American Egg Board, though. The Los Angeles Clippers sprung back from a disheartening Game 1 loss, claiming a 99-91 wire-to-wire victory over the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference playoffs on Tuesday night at Staples Center.

But for much of the night, a double-digit lead seemed tenuous and laced with trepidation.

With the series tied 1-1, the clearest indicator of which team has control might lie in the pace -- a very Utah-like 90.3 across the first two games. The Clippers have held the lead for much of the series, but the Jazz have maintained the tempo.

By all appearances, Game 2 had the aesthetics of a convincing Clippers victory. The LA triumvirate of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul combined for 63 of the team's 99 points. Griffin and Jordan continuously bashed and battered their way to the rim, and Paul delivered his final seven points in the deciding quarter.

Luc Mbah a Moute succeeded in his task of stymieing Utah's Gordon Hayward to a sub-50 percent shooting game for the second straight time (12-of-33 from the field for the series).

And yet a subtle issue developing in the West's 4-5 matchup is that "small ball" is a moniker ill-fitted for what the Jazz have been forced to employ.

A series that was expected to be a battle of size on the interior has been redistributed to the perimeter. And while the the Jazz have done their best to leverage their perimeter weight, the Clippers repeatedly struck the sweet spot. LA's plus-22 differential in points in the paint is what many expected would happen after Jazz defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert fell in the opening moments of the series.

"I thought we did a good job of ... getting the ball inside," Griffin said. "It was a point of emphasis. But yeah, when we're hitting outside shots and putting pressure on teams inside, it is another level, but those games aren't always going to happen. I thought tonight what made the difference is defensively. We just made it tough for them and made them take the shots we wanted them to take."

With Joe Johnson the smallest Utah wing at 6-foot-7, length and size have been smothering LA's 3-point shooting, a huge key to its offense. Jamal Crawford and JJ Redick have struggled to a 1-for-14 start from deep in the series.

"You know, you're giving something up, and the pressure that they put on the rim was significant tonight," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "We were not helping off [Redick and Crawford]. It's just there's a physical advantage around the rim.

"I think some of it is them. I hate to -- like we're doing a great job on Redick and Crawford. All you'd have to do is go back a couple games and look what they've done to us. I think there's an awareness that our guys have. But they're both really good players, and hopefully we can -- I won't say get lucky, but hopefully we can kind of continue to make it hard on them. But realistically both of them are going to break out at some point."

The Clippers made the adjustment to involve Jordan more in Game 2. It led to a win, but it was the smallest margin of victory over the Jazz out of the four wins this season. The next step for the Clippers will probably involve what Snyder is expecting, as Redick and Crawford combined to average 27 points per game against Utah in the regular season.

And as Hayward pointed out, the Clippers will need to be better after the energy of the opening tip-off fades. LA took its largest lead of the game with 11 minutes, 36 seconds left in the second quarter, at 31-18. The Jazz outscored the Clippers from there, 73-68. It will be the Jazz, not the Clippers, with the home-crowd energy in Game 3 Friday night.

"We definitely have to be better in the first quarter," Hayward said. "But besides the first quarter, we played them pretty even. We need to figure that out."

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NBA Playoffs 2017: Chris Paul wouldn't let the Clippers slip up in Game 2

In the third quarter on Tuesday, it looked like the Utah Jazz were going to make the Los Angeles Clippers uncomfortable. Already with a 1-0 lead in the series, the Jazz had cut into a 13-point deficit in Game 2 and hung around for a while. After a beautiful pass from Boris Diaw set up a Derrick Favors layup, the Clippers were only up by three points.

If you believe in the concept of momentum, then Utah clearly had it. On the very next possession, Chris Paul snatched it back.

Suddenly, it was an eight-point game. A few minutes later, it was a 12-point game. The Clippers never turned it into a blowout, but they kept the Jazz at bay. Paul finished with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 10 assists, two rebounds and three steals in the 99-91 victory, and he did it in 33 minutes because of foul trouble in the first half.

"He was great," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "He was good through adversity, which I thought was really good. He got in foul trouble early and we weathered that storm as a team, but he had to weather the storm, sitting. Those uneven minutes for guys throw you off, and I thought it never threw him off. I thought he kept his rhythm, he kept his patience, he kept his peace if you know what I mean. So I thought that was terrific."

Paul didn't do it all himself. Blake Griffin had a game-high 24 points and five rebounds. DeAndre Jordan had 18 points and 15 boards. The team defense was excellent. Paul did, however, keep the Clippers in control. Jazz coached Quin Snyder called him "probably the best pick-and-roll player in the league," and Paul was a big reason why Los Angeles scored 60 points in the paint.

The poise, precision and purpose were even more impressive because of the situation the Clippers were in. A loss would have been perceived as a total catastrophe, triggering questions about their mental toughness, the dreaded "Clippers curse" and, of course, the future of their core. Paul consistently created open looks against a long and versatile defensive team, and on the other end he was locked in, doing everything he could to disrupt the Jazz's flow.

As evenly matched as these teams are, the rest of this series could be decided by who makes the big plays in big moments. Sometimes, that means a contested runner in clutch time . Other times, it means a series of timely plays earlier than that, punching back at an opponent trying to make a run. One Clippers advantage that isn't going away: When they need someone to make something happen, they have Paul on their side.


The Clippers took full advantage of Rudy Gobert's absence, feasting in the paint to win Game 2

Playing without their starting center and defensive linchpin, the Utah Jazz put up a valiant effort against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night. Ultimately, though, the absence of Rudy Gobert proved to be too great to overcome, as a Clippers squad led by center DeAndre Jordan feasted in the paint en route to a 99-91 win that knotted the best-of-seven series between the West’s No. 4 and 5 seeds at one game apiece.

Gobert, the NBA’s leading shot-blocker during the regular season and a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors, remained sidelined after suffering a left knee injury in the opening minute of Game 1 on Saturday. While the Jazz went on to win Game 1 behind tough defense and timely shot-making by veteran scorer Joe Johnson, the loss of the 7-foot-2 rim protector was felt early and often on Tuesday, as bigs Derrick Favors, Boris Diaw and Jeff Withey struggled to keep L.A. out of the paint and away from the rim.

The Clippers outscored the Jazz 60-38 in the paint in Game 2, with Jordan (18 points on 9-for-11 shooting, 15 rebounds, one block, one steal in 34 1/2 minutes) and Blake Griffin (24 points on 11-for-21 shooting, five rebounds, two assists, one block in 39 minutes) leading the charge.

“We’ve just got to find other ways to protect the paint,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said during his post-game press conference. “That’s the challenge. It is what it is. Any time you don’t have a guy that’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, everyone else has to step up. There’s no sense lamenting his absence. We’ve just got to figure out how to be better.”

L.A. pressed the action from the opening tip, with point guard Chris Paul orchestrating in the pick-and-roll and looking to create for himself (five points on two jumpers in the game’s first 90 seconds) or his teammates (a pair of alley-oop lobs for Jordan dunks in the first three minutes). The Clippers started the game on an 11-3 and never looked back, with the ever domineering Paul (21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 10 assists, three steals, two rebounds and a block in 33 minutes) holding the reins throughout a wire-to-wire win that leveled the series before the scene shifts to Salt Lake City for Game 3 on Friday.

While the Clips controlled the contest throughout, though, head coach Doc Rivers would be within his rights to worry a bit that his team was never quite able to run away from a Jazz squad playing without arguably its best player.

“They’re a team that — they keep fighting,” Griffin said during his post-game press conference. “They keep executing. I’ve said it over and over, but they’re really well coached, and they don’t panic. They have a good group of veteran leaders who have been in these situations.”

With Paul and Jordan leading the way, the Clippers raced out to a 29-18 lead after 12 minutes. But then the Clipper bench gave the bulk of that lead back to start the second, as Johnson, Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles started going to work and making shots against L.A.’s reserves. The score stayed within three possessions through halftime, with the Clips taking a 51-42 lead into intermission.

Without Gobert to serve as not only a paint patroller on defense, but also a primary screener and roll man on offense, Utah has had to reorient its attack on both ends of the floor. The Jazz have played smaller lineups, asked more of a finally-healthy-again Favors as the last line of defense, and relied more heavily on 3-point shot-making (10-for-25 from deep on Tuesday) and getting their slashers to the foul line (17-for-22 at the stripe) to generate enough baskets to stay within hailing distance of one of the league’s highest-octane offenses.

It hasn’t always been aesthetically lovely, but it’s been effective enough to earn a split at Staples and leave the Jazz in favorable position heading home, with hope that Gobert will be able to return before the series ends and that Utah’s top gun will be able to find his touch in the friendly confines of Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“We feel like we didn’t play our best basketball, and still, we hung around, we hung around,” said Hayward, who led the Jazz with 20 points, but shot just 5-for-15 from the floor and has made only 36.4 percent of his field goals through two games. “Besides the first quarter there, I felt like we did all right. But we got Game 1, so, go home, figure out what we did wrong and be ready for Game 3. I think we’ll be excited to play in front of our home fans, for sure.”

Having ceded home-court advantage on Johnson’s Saturday night buzzer-beater, the Clippers will need to swipe one in Salt Lake City if they want to regain it, and retain the opportunity to close this series out in a Game 7, should it come to that. Given how successful the Clips were at getting downhill, penetrating into the teeth of Utah’s Gobert-less defense and finishing at the rim to the tune of a 27-for-33 mark inside the restricted area, you’d expect featuring Jordan and Griffin inside would once again be a prominent part of L.A.’s offensive strategy heading into Game 3.

But Paul, typically viewed as the maestro dictating and controlling the proceedings every time the ball touches his fingertips, insists he and his teammates are prepared to let the game unfold as it will rather than trying to force-feed things inside while Gobert isn’t there.

“We gotta play,” Paul said. “I’ve honestly never went into a game and said, ‘We’re gonna kill ’em inside,’ or, ‘We’re gonna kill ’em from the 3.’ Basketball is a game of reads, you know what I mean? If they were in on D.J., and J.J. was open, you would go to him. So, for me, it’s about going in there and executing our game plan. If you come off, and it’s not a shot, you make the pass, and you just keep making the right plays.”

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