LOS ANGELES – From Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, through injuries to Rudy Gobert, Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers (and an illness for Gordon Hayward), there has been one spectacular constant above all others through this contentious first-round NBA playoff series between the L.A. Clippers and Utah Jazz: Chris Paul, dropping dimes and getting buckets.
In four games, the 31-year-old point guard has led all comers in this series in points (26.8), assists (10.8) and steals (2.3), with no fewer than 21 points and 10 assists during any one outing. With one more made three, he will be on track to become the first player in league history to average at least 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds while shooting no worse than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free-throw line in a single postseason.
Yet, for all Paul has done to carry the Clippers through thick and thin, they still face a difficult climb out of what’s now become a best-of-three series against the Jazz. To finish the job, L.A. will need all of its perimeter players, not just Paul, to pick up the pace, especially with Griffin down for the count.
“There’s going to be no Blake Griffin performances by any one guy,” head coach Doc Rivers said before Game 4, “but if we can get three or four guys to pitch in, then maybe we can make it up.”
Paul did his part, falling just one rebound shy of his first-ever playoff triple-double (27 points, nine rebounds, 12 assists). DeAndre Jordan held his own as well, logging his fourth double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in as many outings.
Scoring-wise, their supporting cast chipped in plenty. Jamal Crawford erupted for 25 points, after totaling 27 through the first three games. J.J. Redick (12 points) and Raymond Felton (11 points) both hit double digits for the first time in this series.
But that perimeter trio scored just two points—on two Redick free throws—over the final 7:37 of Game 4 as an 87-80 L.A. lead flipped to a 105-98 defeat at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“I think we let that one slip away,” Paul said.
In truth, the Clippers’ perimeter issues weren’t purely about putting points on the board when it mattered most. Crawford was victimized by switch after switch involving Utah’s Joe Johnson (28 points) and Rodney Hood (18 points). Redick’s series-long shooting slump extended into a 3-of-11 showing on Sunday. Felton added three steals, but finished without an assist for the first time since late March.
“We have to do a better job of moving the ball,” Rivers said, noting that Paul was the only Clipper to tally more than two assists.
L.A.’s issues outside on both ends are nothing new in this matchup. Where the Clippers held their opponents to 35.0 percent shooting from three during the regular season, the Jazz have torched them to the tune of 42.0 percent in these playoffs. Utah’s superior size and length on the perimeter has played a part in that uptic while pestering L.A. into 33.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
The Clippers, though, are hardly down for the count, even in Griffin’s absence. For one, they’re tied 2-2 in the series, with home-court advantage swinging back to the City of Angels.
As much Utah’s defense can do to squeeze L.A.’s guards, there’s no stopping a Crawford hot streak wherever and whenever it might strike. Redick is liable to hit his stride, too. Nor is Felton likely to be held assist-less forever.
The Clippers will soon get another shot in the arm from the younger Rivers. The 24-year-old may make his series debut in Game 5, after missing the first four contests with a hamstring strain. He torched the Jazz for 15.0 points on 56.8 percent shooting (50.0 percent from three) during the regular season, and would give L.A. another much-needed attacker on offense and bulldog on defense to sic on the likes of Johnson, Hayward and Hood.
And then, of course, there’s Paul, ready as ever to set the table and come through in a pinch for the Clippers. Between his tying layup late in Game 1, his steady hand guiding L.A. through Game 2, his spectacular second half (24 of his season-high 34 points) in Game 3 and his dogged determination to keep the team afloat without Griffin at all in Game 4, he’s been a rock through stormy spring seas for this squad.
“He’s stubborn in a very, very positive way,” the elder Rivers said after Game 3. “All the great ones have that in them. They are stubborn enough like they aren’t going to lose.”