A number of series got to Game 5 in this NBA’s first round tied to varying degrees of surprise, but the fact that the pairing which metrics and projections identified as the most evenly matched entering the playoffs is among them was laughably predictable.
It seems like the Jazz and Clippers were always going to require seven games to decide a winner. Even though the ride has played out like a first trip on a rollercoaster, packed with twists and stomach-dropping turns you don’t see coming, the final stretch was seemingly always going to feature one final game at Staples Center to decide who gets to live on and survive to challenge Golden State.
These were the only teams in the entire Western Conference that ended up with identical records. They entered the final week tied after 80 games and each got to 51-31 via winning streaks. By closing out with seven consecutive victories, L.A. entered the playoffs on the league’s longest run. Utah got all its banged-up players back for the final regular-season contest, entering the postseason with renewed hope despite losing a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Clips that meant Game 1 of its series would open at Staples Center.
Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the French center with the 7-foot-7 wingspan, injured his knee 17 seconds in. It looked awful, far worse than it has ended up being, and seemingly put the Clips in the driver’s seat to escape the grind that this series was expected to be unscathed.
Then the Jazz went ahead and overcame the monumental loss by immediately stealing homecourt advantage. They nearly led a substantial lead evaporate, but claimed a Game 1 they controlled throughout when Joe Johnson snapped a tie with a runner at the horn.
Yep, this series featured the first buzzer-beater of the 2017 NBA playoffs, a prop we would’ve been all over had it existed.
In Game 2, the Clips were able to take advantage of a Gobert-less defense in a 99-91 win to even the series, playing with the lead from the onset and holding on late.
L.A. scored 60 points in the paint and took advantage of the fact Derrick Favors, now flying solo in the rim protection game, had to be concerned about foul trouble and couldn’t be aggressive. Despite missing most of the regular season, he’s been a pleasant surprise as the x-factor in helping survive Gobert’s absence.
The Clippers survived the loss of Blake Griffin to a debilitating toe issue in nearly identical fashion to how Utah managed to persevere after Gobert was hurt. Griffin’s injury was suffered in the second quarter and he tried to play through it until he couldn’t. L.A. won the second half 61-48 as Chris Paul took the game over and everyone else simply played their roles in a 111-106 comeback win. The Clips went on a 15-0 run to put away the Jazz, riding Paul’s 34 points, the most he’s scored since dropping 40 on Feb. 26, 2016.
Luc Mbah a Moute responded well to getting more touches, while Marreese Speights wound up a team-best plus-12. Those are the two guys being counted on most to help overcome Griffin’s absence.
Griffin is done for the remainder of the postseason, and if nothing else, he’s given the Clippers plenty of opportunities to gain experience playing without him. He’s missed 70 of 173 possible games including the postseason since 2015-16 began. Griffin averaged 25 points and six boards over the first two games and was headed to similar production before bowing out with 3:17 left before halftime of Game 3.
First-time All-Star Gordon Hayward and Johnson have been the two leading scorers and have been involved in plenty of isolations as Quin Snyder has continued a great season where he led his team to a Northwest title, making him part of the Coach of the Year conversation. He’s going to be counted on to adjust on the fly to try and help the Jazz advance in a postseason for the first time since 2010. Snyder has pushed all the right button.
Entering Sunday’s Game 4, it became apparent that the Clippers biggest problem in this series may not be that Griffin is out, but rather, that Gobert is now back, healthy enough to contributed 15 points and 13 rebounds in his return. Hayward, sick all day Sunday, scored just 3 points in less than 10 minutes, but Johnson scored 11 consecutive points in filling in as the go-to guy, part of a 28-point night that helped even the series 105-98.
Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles also made huge shots down the stretch, coming up large to help hammer in the point that this Jazz team may be ready to make the jump because they have a number of players stepping up when it matters most.
With L.A. left to overcome similar adversity, it wouldn’t be surprising to see an upset here despite the fact that two of the potential final three games in this series will be played at Staples. The unexpected has reigned and should continue.