And so another typical Clippers postseason rolls on.
When you think they’ll win, they lose. And when you think they’re lost, well . . .
In the dying days of a core group whose six-year run together is probably ending, the Clippers showed up here Friday night and sprinted away with the one thing nobody thought they had left.
One last breath.
Charged with staving off playoff elimination in arguably the NBA’s loudest home arena and without one of their best players, the Clippers escaped Vivint Smart Home Arena with the unlikeliest of life.
“This series deserves a Game 7,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said afterward. “We deserve a Game 7, and we got one.”
But barely, barely, barely.
With 1:29 left, the Clippers led by 10 points and it was all but over, but then the Clipper Curse momentarily stuck its head in the building before being shooed away.
Chris Paul lost the ball twice, the Jazz scored seven straight points, and only when an off-balance, potential game-tying three-point attempt by Joe Johnson clanked off the rim were the Clippers saved.
Rivers screamed. Paul barked and eventually tore off his shirt. Steve Ballmer, the team’s checkered-shirted owner, was gesturing so wildly with his hands he appeared to be dancing the robot. A ball was thrown to the rafters and eventually the black shirts bounced off the court in giddy laughter, leaving thousands of white shirts staring in stunned silence.
“This series has been a roller coaster for both teams,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.
But once again, at the front of the thrill ride have been the Clippers. In a matter of hours, they have gone from extinction to the excitement of a deciding game that, two days ago, was considered so unlikely fans were being emailed advertisements for discounted Game 7 tickets.
As quick as one of the Paul drives that again dominated the night — he scored 29 points — they have gone from forgotten to favorites to play in the second round against the Golden State Warriors.
“This is what we talked about, we wanted to give ourselves a chance,” Paul said. “I looked over at [Paul Pierce] and said, ‘You’re not ending your career in Utah.’”
Forget, for a second, that the Warriors appear unbeatable. Forget that the Clippers must forge forward without Blake Griffin, who is lost for the postseason with a toe injury.
When faced with the likelihood of quitting, the Clippers didn’t quit, and their legacy just gets nuttier. Remember in 2015 when they won an elimination Game 6 in San Antonio before returning to win the first-round series in a memorable Game 7 at Staples Center? They are now on the verge of doing it again, and who would have thought?
“Let’s do it again,” Rivers said excitedly as he left the postgame interview stage.
Nobody except the Clippers, it seemed, believed they could win Friday’s game in this environment. It was so loud, with so much shaking and clapping, the risers that held the visiting media constantly rattled and swayed. The Jazz were so confident that during one timeout, the video board displayed two fans holding up posters reading, “Warriors Take Note. We’re Coming.”
That timeout was in the game’s first three minutes.
But it was the Jazz who played tight. It was the Jazz who acted like their season was on the line, and maybe it was. Now that they’re forced to play a Game 7 on the road, the young team has gone from slight favorite to clear underdog.
“We didn’t respond as forcefully as we needed to,” Snyder said.
The Clippers led 47-45 at halftime, during which the crowd was fired up by a performance from a rapper who calls himself “James the Mormon.” The halftime break was extended when officials changed the net on the Jazz’s basket, and it seemed to work, as the Jazz scored the first six points while the Clippers were committing four consecutive turnovers.
When Rivers finally called a timeout with 9:17 left in the third quarter, the Clippers trailing 51-47, he was screaming and waving at his team while the crowd around him chanted “Beat L.A.”
It was a turning point. The Clippers responded with a DeAndre Jordan dunk and a Paul runner and then rolled through the quarter with help from everyone from Austin Rivers to Jamal Crawford to take an eight-point lead at the end of the third on a follow-up dunk by Jordan, who was then met on the bench by Paul.
“I came to the big fella in the fourth and said, ‘Let’s find a way,’” Paul said.
In the end, the Clippers dominated defensively by holding Utah to seven-for-26 three-point shooting, outhustling the uncertain Jazz and outrebounding them by three, and essentially replaced Griffin with three role players.
Austin Rivers, Crawford and Luc Mbah A Moute combined for 38 points while making seemingly every big shot.
“It was one of those collective efforts,” Doc Rivers said. “I liked how it looked, you could see it on the floor, those guys have great confidence in the game.”
As everyone surely knows by now, the Clippers could contractually implode soon. This summer both Paul and Griffin can opt out of their contracts, while J.J. Redick becomes a full-fledged free agent.
Soon, the next chapter will begin. But not so soon. Not so fast. At least for one more game, those crazy Clippers ride on.