The Utah Jazz evened their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers with a home win on Sunday, but the meaning of the victory felt much greater than the simple act of drawing even. With Rudy Gobert back in the lineup, Gordon Hayward momentarily limited due to food poisoning, and Blake Griffin out for the remainder of the playoffs, the Jazz managed to avoid a 3-1 hole and were suddenly the ascendant team in the series. A win in Tuesday night’s pivotal Game 5 would drive the Clippers to the brink of elimination and continue the momentum from the weekend.
It took some time to seal the result, but that’s exactly what Utah did in a huge 96-92 road win. The Jazz controlled the style of the game, a grind-it-out affair in which neither team topped 44 percent shooting from the floor and the Clippers offered an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 16-to-13. The visitors also showcased their biggest advantage in the series as it stands — far superior depth that the threadbare Clippers simply cannot match.
Hayward made that point clearly enough in his return to full availability. After playing only nine first-half minutes on Sunday, the All-Star wing saw the court for a game-high 41 minutes in which he put up a a team-high 27 points on efficient 9-of-16 shooting, adding eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals.
Hayward has occasionally shouldered too much of the responsibility of creating shots on this team, but on Tuesday he was merely the most active playmaker of many. Five Jazz players matched or exceeded Hayward’s assist total for 25 total on 35 made field goals. Additionally, reserve wings Joe Johnson and Rodney Hood accounted for a combined 30 points, or just shy of twice as many as the entire Clippers bench.
The Jazz shot only 43.2 percent from the field and 36.1 percent on 3-point shots (13-of-36), but their execution was not egregious in a game that didn’t exactly prioritize flow. As in many of its wins this season, Utah’s offense did just enough to get the job done.
In contrast, the Clippers depended heavily on their three healthy core players — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and DeAndre Jordan. To their credit, all three performed admirably. Paul was the best player on the floor, contributing a game-high 28 points (10-of-19 FG, 4-of-6 3FG) and nine of L.A.’s 16 assists. His backcourt partner Redick offered his first quality game of the series with a very efficient 26 points (7-of-12 FG, 9-of-10 FT), and Jordan put up 14 points and 12 rebounds in a nice showing. None of the trio dominated Game 5, but they provided what the Clippers absolutely had to have to compete.
Their problem is that, without Griffin, anything shy of individual domination may not be enough. It’s a playoff cliche that role players play better at home, but that was definitely not the case on Tuesday.
Jamal Crawford followed a terrific Game 4 with all of four points on 2-of-8 shooting, which would stand out as especially poor if Paul Pierce hadn’t been the only other player outside of the aforementioned trio to convert more than one field goal. It’s very difficult to win a playoff game with so little production from the bulk of the rotation, and that frankly makes it all the more remarkable that the Clippers were in a two-possession game for the entire final minute.
Chris Paul, JJ Redick, and DeAndre Jordan had 68 points on 72% true shooting. The rest of the Clippers had 24 points on 35% true shooting.
— Positive Residual (@presidual) April 26, 2017
The bad news for L.A. is that it might only get harder to win in Game 6. That’s largely because Gobert appears to be reaching full strength. After playing just 24 minutes on Sunday, the Stifle Tower took on 36 in Game 5 and made a greater defensive impact than he had in his return. His 11 points and 11 rebounds were solid, but the five steals and two blocks communicate more about his effect on proceedings. The Jazz have already managed to craft this series in their preferred fashion, and that should only be easier as Gobert eases back into his role.
The uncertainty of a Game 7 means that it’s hard to hand this series to the Jazz just yet, but explanations for a Clippers win are becoming increasingly convoluted and unlikely. Utah is now the deeper and more talented team, and any inexperience for the likes of Hayward and Gobert is essentially a non-factor five games into the matchup.
For now, the smart money is on the Jazz closing things out at home on Thursday. It will probably take a special performance from Chris Paul to avoid it.
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