LOS ANGELES – After dropping a heartbreaker at the buzzer to the Utah Jazz in Game 1, the L.A. Clippers knew they needed to be better. With a 99-91 Game 2 win their back pocket, the Clippers are well aware they can still be better–and might have to be to make more headway in the 2017 NBA playoffs.
For two days, the Clippers stewed over their mistakes from the postseason opener. The film didn’t lie about the team’s slow start, in spite of Rudy Gobert’s early injury; the lack of traction on the interior, again in Gobert’s absence; or the struggles containing Utah’s perimeter players–Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward and George Hill, in particular.
Nor could the Clippers ignore head coach Doc Rivers’ pleas and protestations in practice.
“Doc yelled at us a lot,” DeAndre Jordan said.
All that preparation paid off for L.A. from the get-go on Tuesday night. The Clippers went after the Jazz inside early and often, outscoring Utah in the paint 18-0 in the first quarter while feeding Jordan (18 points, 15 rebounds) and Blake Griffin (a game-high 24 points).
“That’s what we need,” Griffin said. “Make or miss shots, we have to be aggressive like that.”
On the other end, the Clippers largely cleaned up their act defensively on Hayward, Johnson and Hill. Where that trio combined for 56 points on 23-of-45 (51.1 percent) shooting in Game 1, it wound up with 45 points on 14-of-42 (33.3 percent) shooting during Game 2.
Those improvements for L.A. could all be traced back to a simple but critical uptick in energy and intensity across the board.
“Obviously, we came with the right amount of urgency tonight, and that’s what we have to [do],” Rivers said. “That’s the only way we’re going to win this series.”
The Clippers could pave a smoother path to the second round for themselves with some sharper outside shooting. So far, they have hit just 31.8 percent (14-of-44) of their three-point attempts, with J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford–two of L.A.’s top three triple threats by volume during the regular season–draining 1-of-14 between them.
“Hopefully, we can continue to make it hard on them,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said, “but realistically, both of them are going to break out at some point.”
With or without more fire from Redick and Crawford, the Clippers could stand to clamp down around the arc defensively. The Jazz, a top-10 three-point-shooting team by percentage during the regular season, have burned L.A. at a 40.9-percent clip from beyond the arc.
And that’s with Utah misfiring on some uncontested shots.
“I thought Gordon had some open looks and so did Joe, and we’ve got to keep taking those,” Snyder said. “It may be a similar game where, all of a sudden, some of those go in and it feels better.”
As outstanding as L.A. was on both ends in the first quarter, when it led by as many as 12 points and finished ahead 29-18, the team could never quite put Utah away after that.
“We definitely have to be better in the first quarter,” Hayward said, “but besides the first quarter, we played them pretty even.”
The Clippers’ list of concerns could grow if (or when) Gobert returns from a bone bruise and hyperextended knee. A “crowd full of homers,” as Paul has frequently described it, at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City won’t do the Clippers any favors, especially after holding back its collective playoff roar for five agonizing years.
“Having said that, I’ve never seen a fan block a shot or get a steal,” Rivers said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be only 10 guys out on the floor, and you’ve just got to keep your composure and your trust.”
At the very least, the Clippers can trust in their capacity to not only beat the Jazz as is, but also strengthen their case for postseason progress in the Beehive State this weekend, starting with Game 3 on Friday at 7 pm PT.