Five games have been played, and the Jazz can put this series away in Game 6. This series has been incredible to watch. The series is jam-packed with a plethora of storylines, drama, and two very hungry teams coached by great basketball minds, so let’s see where our matchups sit at the crux of this excellent first round series.
Rudy Gobert vs. DeAndre Jordan
The most important matchup of the series finally became a reality in Game 4. Hours before the game started, Rudy Gobert was upgraded to “questionable,” meaning he could potentially see playing time. Just before tip-off, he was inserted into the starting lineup, which was met with a deafening roar at Vivint Smart Home Arena. His impact was felt immediately when he threw down a vicious putback. In the two games since his return, he’s averaging 13.0 points per game at a blistering 71 percent. He is averaging 12.0 rebounds over the course of two games, and he snagged 13 of them in 24 minutes of play in Game 4 and 11 more in Game 5, with 35 minutes of play. He’s also blocked two shots in both games, and set a career-high in steals with five, in Game 5.
DeAndre Jordan hasn’t been affected by Rudy’s return too much, because he's averaging 14.2 points a game, making 71 percent of his shots, hauling in 13.0 rebounds, and blocking 1.2 shots in this series. That’s a slight dip in production, but not a whole lot can be done to keep a player of his size and talent down. However, since Gobert's return, the Jazz have been able to clog up the paint and keep the majority of the Clippers' inside passes to a minimum. The Jazz have also not shied away from sending Jordan to the free-throw line where he’s only made 43 percent of his attempts.
Rodney Hood vs. J.J. Redick
The battle between Rodney and J.J. has heated up a bit since Game 3. Rodney has penetrated more, taking 13 shots in the paint in the last two games compared with just five in the first three games, but he's hit them at just 38 percent of the time. His three point shooting has significantly improved, though, making 50 percent of his attempts in the last two games, and making them when they've mattered the most. Surprisingly, J.J. Redick was attacking in Game 5, attempting five shots in the paint, hitting four of them. He had taken just nine shots in the paint in the first four games of the series. He’s even had more opportunities from behind the arc, hitting 36 percent on 7.0 attempts in games 4 and 5. It will be interesting to see if he will continue to get better looks in Game 6, but he hasn’t been a factor on the either side of the ball to really show concern.
Derrick Favors vs. Blake Griffin
Derrick Favors has been significantly better since his two-point performance in Game 3. Hell, in Game 4 he was unbelievably reliable coming off the bench. When Rudy came back into the lineup with limited minutes, he held his own and then some. He poured in 17 points while shooting a steady 70 percent from the field, hauling in six rebounds, and two steals.
Blake Griffin suffered a plantar tear in his right big toe in Game 3, ending his season and the Clippers' hopes of going deep into the playoffs. It is unfortunate for the Clippers to lose one of their star players in the playoffs the last three years.
George Hill vs. Chris Paul
Now that we’re five games into this series, Hill is averaging 15.8 points on 44 percent shooting and 3.6 assists. His free throw chances haven't changed much, other than the four straight he put down to finish off Game 5. Despite his numbers, he’s still a crucial part of the offensive flow and defensive consistency. However, over the course of this series, George Hill has been having a hard time defending Chris Paul. Let’s not forget that CP3 is very, very good at getting his own shots, but he’s even better when he comes off of a screen; something George Hill has a problem stopping. Whether or not the switch is supposed to happen on defense to shrink the floor and run shooters off of the three-point line, he’s not getting to the spots he needs to when the switch doesn’t occur. In those moments he’s either found himself stuck to a screen or isn’t recovering as quick as he should be, letting Chris Paul get the looks he wants.
With that said, Chris Paul has been spectacular for his team. He’s averaging 27.0 points a game, shooting 53 percent from the field, dishing out 10.4 assists, 2.0 steals and has made 92 percent of his free throws. The Jazz have been trying to force him into mistakes by making his life difficult on every possession, but the guy is just too good and intelligent to give him any kind of breathing space. He has turned himself into the sole provider of offense the last few games of this series, but at what point is he going to be winded? Chris Paul's talent is undeniable, but the dude needs to stop whining like a baby. He’s always thrown unnecessary temper tantrums throughout his career, but throughout this series, and specifically Game 5, he was acting like a child who just got grounded for a month, because he tried stealing Hayward’s hair gel. Chris, buddy, just shut up and play the game. Nobody likes a whiner.
Joe Johnson Is Ridiculous
Throughout this series, Joe Johnson has been unreal. He has been the catalyst in clutch situations throughout this series (his career if you’ve been keeping track) and making big plays like it's no big deal. The Clippers have had no answer for him on defense, and he's been able to get whatever shot he wants when he wants it. Without him, the Jazz wouldn't have won Game 1, had a glimpse at winning Game 3 (which they didn’t), the comeback to win Game 4 (where he scored 11 straight), and the touch to seal Game 5. Joe Johnson has another gear that few, if any player, possesses. The things he has done for this team throughout this series is precisely why Dennis Lindsey snagged him in the off-season. Adam Silver should make a trophy just for him and call it Mr. Cool. The only other player deserving of it in these playoffs would be LeBron James, and that’s it. Okay, maybe Isaiah Thomas.
Gordon Hayward, My How You’ve Grown
Gordon Hayward finally exploded on the offensive end in Game 3. He scored 21 points in the first quarter, making six of his six shots from the field and making all three free throws, en route to a career-best 40 points and shooting an incredible 62 percent for the game. Despite the loss, Hayward finally showed the league why he was an All-Star this year and why the Jazz belong in the playoffs.
After missing most of Game 4 with a gastric illness, Hayward didn't miss a beat in Game 5. He was aggressive on offense, attacking the paint and draining timely threes. Not to mention his breakaway dunk at the buzzer to end the third quarter. However, the moment that stands out the most, despite his impressive performance in Game 5, was when he lost control of the ball during an offensive rebound attempt late in the fourth quarter and dove on top of it to keep possession. Chris Paul jumped on top of him to make a play, and Gordon then ripped his arms away from him as he stood up and took the ball for himself, letting him know who was taking the game ball for the night.
This moment was a culmination of not just a player growing up, but the Jazz maturing and owning their relentless and defensive identity. When the Jazz made the NBA Finals 20 years ago, everyone in the country started paying attention to them because of their physical play night in and night out. Nobody liked playing against the Jazz, and now the same rings true again. I can't adequately express how much I loved that moment and how much I have enjoyed watching this team grow into the Jazz of old.
Quin Snyder vs. Doc Rivers
The tactical and cerebral battle between Quin Snyder and Doc Rivers has been an under appreciated storyline of this series. And after the decisive victory in Game 5, I think it's safe to say who the better coach is. Quin Snyder’s game management in Game 5 was incredible. He had three timeouts to spare with less than 45 seconds to go. Doc Rivers didn’t have any and relied on Chris Paul to make plays down the stretch, which he answered in kind, but one player can only do so much with little to work with. This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. Quin Snyder was inserting so many different players into the lineup throughout the night, and the Clippers didn’t have an answer for anything defensively. If Game 5 is any indication, Doc Rivers is out of ideas, while Quin Snyder keeps coming up with new ones.