LOS ANGELES — With 2 minutes, 59 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Gordon Hayward tips out an errant George Hill 3 and the ball finds its way into the waiting hands of Joe Johnson, the unlikely influencer of this 4-vs.-5 first-round series. He takes a half-step back beyond the arc and, with a swish, the Utah Jazz climb to a crisp five-point lead.
Timeout, Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers Hoop Troop runs onto the court to rally the 19,171 in attendance for the critical push the home team needs in a teetering Game 5. When a series is tied 2-2 in NBA history, a road winner of Game 5 has won the series 63.8 percent of the time.
Along with them, a six-foot high inflatable totem is rolled onto center court with “LOUD” emblazoned down the side. Staples Center gets loud.
Then, unexpectedly, the air-filled polyurethane cylinder expands vertically to reveal “LOUDER” striped down the side of the second level. As the arena buzzes to a fever pitch, more air is pumped in and a “LOUDEST” third tier emerges — but not before toppling over.
“You know, it’s a tough loss, but it’s not like I’m going to go bury my head or anything like that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after the 96-92 defeat that seemed to let the air out of Los Angeles’ hopes of returning to the second round.
“We lost the game. You know, defensively overall I thought we played pretty well. Offensively, I didn’t think we played well at all. There were a lot of things that I did like about the game, and there were a lot of things I didn’t. I think they’re all fixable.”
In a choppy affair that bore the hallmarks of Game 1, sharpshooter JJ Redick finally fought free of the offball clutches of Utah’s handsy wings. Redick zigged to the rim when the Jazz leapt through screens, and zagged from deep when feeling a lock and trail. L.A.’s third-leading scorer this season finished with 26 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 10 free throw attempts.
Yet while the Clippers might have deciphered the Jazz’s perimeter finger trap, how to handle the oversized iteration of small ball continues to mystify. Utah trotted out lineups for several minutes in Game 5 that featured four wings of at least 6-foot-7 and no traditional point guard.
“Well, we’ve played a lot of different lineups because we’ve had — we have four point guards on our roster,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “There was a point where I think two or three of them were hurt. We’ve used Joe Ingles at that position. I’m confident in our wings’ ballhandling ability …
“If it’s Rodney [Hood], Gordon, Joe Ingles and Joe, there’s no pure point guard and you worry a little bit about guys getting pressure. But hopefully they can just share it, and it makes us pretty good defensively at times. I felt like Hood did a great job tonight, but we still wanted to use that lineup, and particularly George Hill looked fatigued to me tonight at certain points, so we’re trying to get him a little bit of rest. It’s always a little nerve-wracking for me to do it, but our guys have confidence in it, so usually I just go with it.”
It’s yet another wrinkle Utah has added to a series that, despite unanticipated injuries, has largely unfolded to the design of the lower seed. Game 5 played to the slow tune the Jazz dictated yet again — a melody that has carried over from the outset of the series.
“We’re making [execution] mistakes,” Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute said after the loss. “We really haven’t gotten into a game where the whole game we makin’ them play the way we want to make ’em play, you know? They’ve gotten a lot of 3s and we’re trying to take them away from 3s, but somehow they’re still getting it.”
And for a team that spent a season under the cloud of whether it could bring back a core that has yet to enjoy a deep playoff run, the immediate reality is a question of whether the Clippers can even come back to host a Game 7.