The season is over for the Los Angeles Clippers after losing Sunday’s game against the Utah Jazz, 104-91. Going into the past season the Clippers were the clear favorite in this series, a team with six players who have been together for two years — longer for some — and faced every playoff victory and defeat together. They had the skills and experience that usually is the deciding factor in playoffs.
The Jazz were no fluke. They won the Northwest Division, ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. The Thunder lost to the Houston Rockets in five games and the Trail Blazers were swept by the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference champions for the past two seasons and the NBA Champions in 2015. They will be Utah’s next opponents.
The Clippers were without their leading scorer, Blake Griffin, who had a toe injury during the third game of the series. In the next game Rudy Gobert, center for the Jazz, came back from the injury he suffered in the first game.
Injuries have plagued Griffin throughout his career and in last year’s playoffs both Griffin and point guard Chris Paul were injured in the first round, which they lost to the Trail Blazers.
But the loss of their power forward wasn’t the only issue with the Clippers in the series with the Jazz. Inconsistent scoring was an issue throughout the series. In game 7 Chris Paul, who had been leading his team spiritually and in points, was limited to just 13 points, with nine assists and four rebounds.
Sixth man Jamal Crawford finished the game with 20 points, four rebounds and three assists. In Game 6 he had 12 points and in Game 5 he scored only four. He did have a great night in Game 4, scoring 25 points, but the Jazz won, 105-98.
Shooting guard J.J. Redick, usually a scoring threat during the regular season, especially from three-point range, only had three points in Sunday’s loss. He didn’t make his only three-pointer until there was only 3:28 left in the game when the Jazz were winning by 11 points. In Friday’s Game 6, Redick had only four points.
Without Griffin in the games the Clippers needed both Crawford and Redick to at least play to their season averages (12.3 for Crawford and 15 for Redick).
Center DeAndre Jordan played consistently throughout the series. On Sunday he finished with 17 rebounds and 24 points. In Game 6 Jordan had 18 boards and 13 points, in Gam 5: 12 rebounds and 14 points. Unfortunately for Los Angeles his numbers at the free throw line remained unchanged from the regular season.
Without Blake Griffin, Chris Paul carried his team through this series. Except for Game 7, Paul’s numbers haven been great. He scored 29 in Game 6, 28 in Game 5 and 27 in Game 4. The Clippers never really got enough cumulative scoring from the bench to make up for not having Griffin’s steady 31 points per game he averaged in the month of April.
But the Jazz beat the Clippers in Game 1 at Staples Center, when Griffin scored 26 and Utah was without Rudy Gobert.
The bottom line was: The Utah Jazz were just better throughout the series.
After the game Paul told the media, “I think they did a pretty good job of being up in the ball screens. They were shrinking the court on us, and then late when we did start scoring, we couldn’t get stops. Jamal got it going, and it seemed like every time I hit a three or mid-range, they came down and it was back and forth. We didn’t put together enough stops. ”
In the off-season the Jazz added veteran players George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson — three players with big game experience. It was Johnson who delivered the buzzer-beater in Game 1 to win it for Utah and Johnson was a major force in all seven games. When Gobert came back for Game 5 he had 11 rebounds, 11 points, one assist, five blocks and one steal.
After their Game 5 win, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said, “I think pretty simply, adding Joe (Johnson), Boris (Diaw) and George (Hill) has given some confidence to our group. That didn’t just happen in the playoffs. That happened throughout the year.”
Johnson had a large impact on the team’s success, but the best player to emerge for Utah was forward Gordon Hayward. He averaged 23.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in the series. In game 3, which the Clippers won, Hayward had 40 points. After the game Hayward said, “Our bigs were up on pick-and-rolls. We made it difficult for Chris Paul to get in the lane, get his little pull-up jump shot, too, and guys on the weak side were rotated, making them make the extra pass and make some other guys try to create for them. So it really was just execution defensively from our whole team, guys coming in, trying to get rebounds, our bigs battling DeAndre so other guys could swoop in and get the rebound, but really execution.”
Derrick Favors, who was a rookie with Hayward six years ago, told the media, “You know, it feels real good. I was struggling a lot this season with injuries, and my teammates had to hold it down for me while I was out. But I felt like I owed them, especially in this game. I just wanted to come out, be aggressive, make sure I had their backs. When Rudy got in foul trouble, I had to make sure I was ready mentally and physically and I just wanted to pay them back for holding me down all season. ”
As good as they were in this series, the Jazz will have to raise their game even more for the next when they face the Golden State Warriors. They have had time to rest and practice after sweeping Portland.
Members of the Warriors were heard saying they were hoping the Clippers won the series because they prefer the nightlife in Los Angeles to the nightlife (or lack thereof) in Salt Lake City, UT. That’s the kind of talk that goes up on the other team’s white board as motivation.
After Game 5 at Staples Center, Snyder told the media, “After every game, before every game, it’s a position our team hasn’t been in. Haven’t played Game 1, never been 1-1, we’ve never been up 3-2. We’ve been up 1-0, it’s different. We know how difficult it is to win a series, particularly against a team like this — we still haven’t done anything yet.”
Well now they’ve won a playoff series, but the next one starts tomorrow in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors. On Sunday George Hill said, “I think with our play tonight, all 15 guys making an effort to pull out this win just shows that we’re a deep team, and the way the ball was moving on the offensive end and the way we’re defending, I think we can take that and try to carry it on to the next series.”
Sunday’s game also marked the end of Paul Pierce’s career as a player. In his 19 seasons, primarily with the Boston Celtics — plus two years with the Washington Wizards and a season with the Brooklyn Nets before coming to Los Angeles for the 2015-16 season — he averaged 19.7 points per game, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists.
Pierce is a native of Inglewood, CA, so coming to the Clippers was an opportunity to play in front of his family and friends. After the game he said, “I’m just happy I got a chance to be in front of family and friends, you know. Really,just be in front of people that saw Paul Pierce from the time he was just a kid growing up, had a dream of playing the game of basketball in the NBA. A lot of people didn’t get the chance to get to Boston so these last two years have really been great to for me. Just looking up and seeing my mom in the stands, uncles, cousins, friends and close associates catching me in these last days.”
About the loss and exit from the playoffs, Pierce said, “Definitely disappointing. Not the ending that you want. Everybody wants that story book ending, but everybody can’t be Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning and go out with a championship. At the end of the day I’m happy with the way my career has gone.” Pierce added, “I’m going to miss the game, of course, but it’s time to move on to a new chapter in my life.”
What’s next for the Clippers? This was considered their make or break year, due to the contract limitations. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights and J.J. Redick will all become unrestricted free agents. All five have played important rolls in the team’s success. But will they — or the Clippers — look to move on and if the team and the players want to stay together can the Clippers do it with the current salary cap?
Interestingly enough there hasn’t been an exit interview from head coach and President of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers. It hasn’t been scheduled yet either so we don’t know what his thoughts are now that the season is over. Early in the series Rivers said he wants to keep the core of the team together, but getting Griffin, Paul and Redick under contract next season might cost them as much as $200 million, with the salaries and luxury tax.
Teams that go over their salary caps pay a fee for every dollar they exceed the limit — the“Luxury Tax.” For Steve Ballmer, the owner o the Clippers, will the price be worth it?
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UPDATE: The Clippers announced in a press release that forward Blake Griffin underwent a successful surgery today to repair his injured toe. The surgery was performed by Dr. Robert Anderson, a foot and ankle specialist in Charlotte, NC.
Griffin is a five-time NBA All Star and a four-time All NBA selection. He appeared in 61 regular season games and averaged 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
Photos by Claudia Gestro
Top photo: Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson of the Utah Jazz
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