It was fitting that Joe Johnson a.k.a Iso Joe a.k.a Joe Jesus hit the jumper over Luc Mbah a Moute’s outstretched arm to essentially seal it. Johnson, a former star whose game remains unchanged despite the ravages of time even as his impactful minutes on the court have slowly decreased, is the kind of role player the Clippers and Doc River have routinely failed to find. It was especially significant in a game where the Clips, sans-Blake Griffin, were desperate for anyone capable of creating their own shot outside of Chris Paul.
This series, however it ends, will be defined in part by the absence of certain key players at extremely inconvenient times for both teams. Gobert misses the first two games after getting injured on the first play of the series. Blake gets hurt halfway through game two and Gordon Hayward misses the second half of game three due to food poisoning.
But while the Jazz have been able to weather the storm of Gobert and Hayward’s absence, albeit two players whose temporary loss lacks the impact of Griffin’s permanent one, it’s difficult to see how the Clips survive Blake’s absence. Redick finally shrugged off his shooting slump in this series and exploded for 26 points on 7-12 from the field and Paul had another impressive game with 28 points (10-19) and nine assists. But that was really it. Outside of DeAndre’s 14 points (6-8), the Clippers went six-for-30 from the field.
The defense down the stretch was also atrocious, as it has been for the last three games. There were countless times where Redick or Crawford or Felton would inexplicably lose their man, usually Hood or Ingles, to help Paul or Luc (two very good individual defenders the team has to trust to do their jobs) coral George Hill or Joe Johnson off the pick and roll–giving up a wide open three pointer beyond the arc.
A lineup of Hill-Hood-Johnson-Gordon-Gobert is enough of a nightmare to defend without ceding open three point shots. Letting Johnson cook in isolation might feel disheartening as he’s burying contested jumper after contested jumper but sometimes you have to live with it if the alternative is giving up an open three pointer.
Chris Paul remains the best player in this series but, in the absence of Blake, the Jazz might have the next best four. Chris Paul is a master of his craft but he has never been the sort of player to shoulder the burden of a team in isolation–he seeks egalitarian solutions by nature. Create the open shot, whether it be for yourself or your teammate.
But what Paul has never been, at least in his years as a Clipper, is the kind of superstar who will take 25-plus shots in a game. He will take over offensively with his individual scoring in spurts, as he did in game 3 to wrest the game away from the Jazz, but the Clipper’s can’t rely on him to exclusively bail them out of every fourth quarter deficit.
However, it’s difficult to see any path to victory in the next two games for the Clippers outside of a sustained virtuoso performance from Paul coupled with a breakout game from Crawford, Rivers, Felton or Speights. The Jazz have too many good players and the Clippers, for what might be the fourth year running, just don’t have enough to match.