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“We Had to Win”

The Clippers rebounded from their Game 1 loss to tie their first-round series against the Jazz. But with a short bench and the nagging memories of playoff failures past, the team is still trying to find out what they’re made of.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Doc Rivers made it sound so simple. Before Game 2, the Clippers head coach was asked what went wrong in their postseason opener against the Jazz. Someone else in his position might have broken into a flop sweat or thrown down a smoke bomb to cover his rapid retreat. Rivers barely blinked. For all of their faults and failures over the years — for all of their mood swings, from bummed out to frustrated to openly angry — the Clippers rarely seem panicked.

Rivers admitted that the Clippers defense in that first game, a 97–95 loss on a Joe Johnson buzzer-beater, “wasn’t very good” and their “offense was worse.” DeAndre Jordan revealed that Rivers “yelled at us a lot” in between outings, and Blake Griffin said they spent those two days “being pretty pissed off and watching film.” So how might the Clippers avoid another home meltdown that would put them two games back in the series?

“Do things better,” Rivers replied. It was the press-conference equivalent of the shrug emoji.

As far as Rivers was concerned, it was all pretty obvious. There was, quite literally, a big reason the Jazz had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA during the regular season — and he was sidelined mere moments after the series tipped off. But the Clippers failed to properly exploit Rudy Gobert’s absence in the first game and lost.

In Rivers’s parlance, they did things better the second time around. The Clippers beat the Jazz, 99–91, at the Staples Center on Tuesday to even the series at 1–1. In their Game 1 loss, the Clippers had 40 points in the paint, which was what they averaged during the season. They had that many points in the paint midway through the third quarter of Game 2 and finished with 60 total. They were merciless inside — “intense” and “impressive,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder called it.

Not surprisingly, the Jazz’s net rating plummeted from plus-8.1 when Gobert was on the floor in the regular season to minus-2.9 when he wasn’t, according to NBA.com, and they allowed 6.9 points more per 100 possessions without him. The Clippers seemed to remember this critical information in Game 2.

With Gobert and his silly 7-foot-9 wingspan nowhere near the paint — in the regular season, opponents shot just 43.9 percent at the rim against him, per NBA.com — the path was clear for the “downhill rim attacks” Rivers wanted. The Clippers’ dominance inside turned out to be essential since two of their best outside shooters have been awful so far from distance: J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford have missed 13 of 14 3-pointers in the series. It’s yet another reason for the Clippers to try to get to the bucket, where the Jazz are vulnerable. Derrick Favors is a good player, but he has not been healthy for much of the year, and, besides, he’s still not Gobert. After that, Snyder has played only two other bigs — Boris Diaw, who jumps like a man who sold both his Achilles on the medical black market, and Jeff Withey. (Remember Trey Lyles? No? Neither does Snyder.)

Maybe Tuesday’s victory didn’t exactly save the Clippers’ season, but a loss almost certainly would have scuttled it. “We had to win,” Jordan said. Which doesn’t mean the Clippers are in the clear. They never are. Even with the improved approach, they still struggled to put the Jazz away in Game 2. As Gordon Hayward — who is shooting 36.4 percent from the floor in two playoff games — pointed out, the Jazz kept “hanging around, hanging around.” The Clippers had an eight-point lead at home late in the fourth quarter Tuesday, and it never felt comfortable. The Clippers don’t really do comfortable. They rarely make things easy on themselves. It’s part of what makes them the Clippers.

It might have been a canned question, but it wasn’t without merit. The abridged version went like this: Given all the injuries the Jazz suffered during the regular season, were they used to functioning without key cogs?

The exchange happened shortly before the Jazz embarked on their first postseason journey in five years. Quin Snyder didn’t have to think about it very long. Joe Ingles was the only guy to play all 82 games for the Jazz. Rodney Hood missed 23 games. Favors was out for 32. George Hill was absent for 33. Even Hayward, who had his best season as a pro by nearly any metric, began the year on the mend and was unavailable for the first six games.

As a result, the Jazz were forced to try a lot of different lineups. Their top five-man rotation played just 152 minutes together all season. By contrast, the Clippers’ best group logged 871 minutes together — not to mention the fact that L.A.’s main four players have been tethered to each other for the past four years. Snyder correctly called the Jazz “green” by comparison.

And yet the Jazz still won 51 games — as many as the Clippers, Cavs, and Raptors. Somewhere along the way, Utah got comfortable in uncomfortable situations. “When there’s adversity,” Snyder said, “we have to rise to it.”

But whatever. That sounded mostly like coach speak, considering he said it when the Jazz were finally fully healthy. Which lasted all of 11 seconds.

The injury was stunning to watch, and not simply because of the quick and cruel timing. Initially, Gobert tried to limp back on defense before he was shuttled to a hospital where an MRI mercifully revealed no structural damage to his knee. (His status remains in doubt for the remainder of the series.) Meanwhile, the poor Jazz radio guys howled in agony, as though Luc Mbah a Moute had accidentally taken out their legs too, and Twitter was pretty sure the series was over after it had barely begun. It wasn’t.

As magic tricks go, Utah’s Game 1 victory was the biggest pulled off at Staples Center since Luke Walton abracadabra’d Nick Young into a semi-useful player. Aside from Chuck D, who wasn’t shocked? Not only did the Jazz somehow win without their best defender, but they also cooled off a team that was on a heater. Entering the playoffs, the Clips had won seven straight games and 11 of their last 13. They snatched the season series against the Jazz 3–1 and they were victorious in 18 of their previous 21 meetings versus Utah since trading for Chris Paul in 2011. All told, the Clippers should have won Game 1. But, then, that’s where you get into trouble — when you think about all the things these Clippers should have accomplished but didn’t.

“It sucks,” Paul said after Game 1. “We lost. To tell you the truth, we sucked pretty bad here at home in the playoffs anyway. We lost, I think, most of the series in home games. Now we’ve got to see what we’re made of.”

And so it goes for the Clippers. After all of these years, they’re still trying to see what they’re made of.

If the Jazz are the green team on the rise, too busy with the daunting tasks at hand to consider the long, Gobert-less odds against them, then the Clippers are their negative image. They are painfully self-aware. How could they not be? Their present and future are forever filtered through the prism of past failures. The Jazz want to win a playoff series for the first time in seven years. (To put that in perspective, the still-Processing Sixers won a playoff series more recently.) The Clippers don’t just want to win this series — they need to win it. Otherwise, all of those offseason decisions about who comes back and who doesn’t — from Doc to CP3 to Blake to J.J. and beyond — get even messier.

There are further complications for the Clippers. While the injury-riddled Jazz acquainted themselves with various lineups, the Clippers are hyperdependent on their core. (To that end, Paul has been a one-man monster thus far against the Jazz, averaging 23 points on 55.9 percent shooting, to go with 10.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.0 steals per game.) Even in the playoffs, where coaches are quick to thin out rotations and ladle heavy minutes to their main men, the Clippers are starved for useful players off the bench. Crawford is a regular contributor. Mo Speights is something closer to irregular. Austin Rivers is hurt. It’s a problem that’s dogged Doc since he landed in Los Angeles. By his admission, it’s a suboptimal way to operate, but at this point they have few options.

Blake Griffin, Joe Johnson, and Raymond Felton (AP Images)
Blake Griffin, Joe Johnson, and Raymond Felton (AP Images)

When Austin went down, Doc shortened the rotation. Now the Clippers generally keep two starters on the floor when they go to their bench to prevent stalling the offense. (The Clippers bench has scored 48 points in two games, compared with 77 by the Jazz bench.) That, Doc added, “extends our minutes probably a little further than what we probably want.”

“We have no choice,” he said.

It’s a situation of Rivers’s own making. Aside from failing to reach the conference finals, the biggest criticism of these Clippers is invariably about roster construction — principally their nagging lack of depth in general and their inability to identify a wing option in specific. Mbah a Moute is an excellent defender, but he’s a liability on offense who is mostly asked to get out of the way. (He averaged just 6.1 points this season on 4.7 shots per game.) Crawford played all 82 games for the first time in his career — becoming the first person to do so this far deep into a career — but he’s also 37 and, oh yeah, he got victimized by Iso Joe on that Game 1 winner. Speights is not without value, but he’s also inconsistent. Beyond that, the only other Clippers to see the floor this postseason have been Raymond Felton, who you probably don’t want to press into duty for long stretches if you can avoid it, and Paul Pierce (ditto). The fact that the Clippers were legitimately and understandably bummed when Austin Rivers went down tells you everything you need to know about their depth.

The quandary for the Clippers this series isn’t so much about how to reanimate their petrified forest of a bench but rather how to best deploy their talented but limited assets. That became especially true after Gobert was injured. Both sides know the approach now. There’s no secret or subtlety to any of it as the series swings to Salt Lake City.

Given all that, you have to figure the Jazz are happy to head home with the series tied. The Clippers, per usual, are something other than happy. Even after winning the second game, the first one still stung, and you wonder if maybe it will linger in their minds a bit.

“We can’t go back and fix it,” DeAndre Jordan said, sounding like a man who wished they could.