LOS ANGELES — This wouldn’t be a postseason run for the LA Clippers if they didn’t feel a sense of urgency in the first round. And sure enough, two games in, there’s sweat.
Keep in mind this is a team that, despite three premier players in their prime and a coach who won big in another city, have nothing significant to show for their run of 50-win seasons. And this year brings an even more sinister feeling, in that the behemoth standing in their immediate path isn’t the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. This time, it’s the Utah Jazz, whose development has remained in the slow cooker until now.
Therefore, you can understand that after the Clippers lost the opener – at home, no less – that they did something about it and took Game 2, 99-91, on Tuesday at Staples Center.
So here we are: this Western Conference power is still trying to get over the hump (and shake a stigma), is still trying to reach the conference finals for goodness’ sake and is tied in its series (and trying not to fret too much over it). The Clippers are keenly aware of the damage that could come with another early playoff exit – there would be some serious soul-searching this summer and perhaps a major roster shake-up, too.
The longer they stay alive in the playoffs, the less likely that owner Steve Ballmer -- almost exclusively hands-off ever since he purchased the club three years ago -- might start wondering about the bang he’s getting for his $2 billion.
Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick are all free agents in July. That group, along with DeAndre Jordan, they represent the meat of the club. Re-signing Paul could start at $30 million a season and stretch in the range of $200 million for the duration of the contract. Griffin’s deal would be slightly less, and along with Redick, the Clippers could be looking at $300 million-plus for the three. That’s a lot of coin for an aging nucleus that has failed to reach the Western Conference finals.
All season, coach Doc Rivers has maintained that he’d like to keep everyone and everything intact. His rationale is you don’t voluntarily dismantle a team that constantly puts itself in position to win big. All the Clippers need are a few more chances and some help around the fringes, both of which sound reasonable.
But keeping top players costs money, and how would Ballmer feel about reaching deep into his pocket to pay the luxury-tax? Doesn’t a man worth a reported $27 billion stick to a budget like the rest of us?
After paying a record price for the Clippers, Ballmer immediately pledged his support for Rivers, giving the coach both a raise and allowing him to keep control of personnel matters. Ballmer did that because he didn’t know much about basketball, and besides, Rivers is a respected name in the NBA. So, why change?
Initially, Rivers’ roster moves were lukewarm at best. Last summer, though, he upgraded the supporting cast by adding Marresse Speights, re-signing Jamal Crawford and developing his son, Austin Rivers, into a more dependable backup guard.
It helps to get a break along the way, too, and the Clippers certainly earned one when Jazz center Rudy Gobert suffered a hyperextended knee in the opening seconds of Game 1. Gobert didn’t play Tuesday, and may not appear this series — his status is unknown even to the Jazz at this point — which means Utah is without the league’s best shot-blocker and intimidator.
The Clippers were lax in taking advantage of his absence in Game 1, and lost on a Joe Johnson buzzer-beater. That clearly wasn’t the case Tuesday when the opportunistic Clippers beat a path to the rim and came away without a scratch. They shot 38-for-64 inside the 3-point line, with Jordan missing only twice in 11 shots. He and Griffin (24 points) repeatedly beat the Jazz on layups, lobs and dunks, a handful on sneaky feeds from Paul, who had 10 assists.
“We’ve just got to find other ways to protect the paint,” said an exasperated Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “That’s the challenge. Anytime you don’t have a guy that’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, everybody’s got to step up. There’s no sense in lamenting his absence. We’ve just got to figure out how to be better. The pressure they put on the rim was significant.”
Snyder is working from a disadvantage. His remaining big men are Derrick Favors (still not 100 percent healthy), Boris Diaw (the club’s oldest player whose best years are behind him) and Jeff Withey (who isn’t used to playing heavy playoff minutes).
The Clippers are in no position to offer up any sympathy, even if they wanted to. Last spring, the Portland Trail Blazers eliminated them after both Paul and Griffin suffered injuries. Nobody sent them any flowers.
Besides, given their recent playoff history, the Clippers are adopting a more mercenary personality.
“We came with the right amount of urgency,” Rivers said after Tuesday’s win. “That’s the only way we’re going to win this series.”
Snyder: “They raised their level. It was impressive. That’s who they are, that’s what we expected of them and now we’ve got to raise ours.”
The next two games are in Salt Lake City, and conventional playoff wisdom says Utah should be happy to head home with a split. It would help if Gordon Hayward (who shot 5-for-15 in Game 2) isn’t held in check again by Luc Mbah a Moute. Of course, the interior defense somehow must reawaken without Gobert. Or maybe Gobert will feel healthy enough to return to the series. It’s all uncertain right now.
Deep down, the Jazz must also ask themselves if they’re as desperate as the Clippers.
Only one team is frustrated by five straight years of early exits. Only one team has virtually nothing to show for suiting up three All-Stars. And only one team is facing a long summer if they don’t make it to May.
That team played with a sense of purpose Tuesday.
“We won,” said Rivers, “so I would say we responded.”
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