The Los Angeles Clippers were facing an uphill battle entering Game 5 of their series against the Utah Jazz as they had to travel to Salt Lake City without their best player, Kawhi Leonard. That didn't matter in the end. The Clippers still pulled off a stunning upset to beat the Jazz 119-111, taking them one step closer to their first-ever trip to the Western Conference finals. It was all thanks to their most maligned player.
When the Clippers needed him the most, Paul George came up clutch as he finished the win with a game-high 37 points to lead four players for Los Angeles finishing in double figures. On the other side, the Jazz wasted an effort in which six players scored in double figures and, as a team, they knocked down 20 shots from beyond the arc.
With the win, Los Angeles now has an opportunity to close this series out at Staples Center on Friday night in Game 6. Here are the three most important takeaways from Game 5.
1. Playoff P
Reggie Jackson signed with the Clippers after receiving a buyout from the Detroit Pistons in large part because of his friendship with Paul George. That is how valuable George was to the Clippers in Game 5. It wouldn't even be accurate to say that he did everything for them on the court. He also took care of some of their most important business off of it by recruiting Jackson, who gave the Clippers 20 huge points in the upset victory.
It's just the latest in a string of excellent performances from George this postseason, who has now scored 20 or more points in all 12 of the Clippers' games. As much ridicule as he's drawn for his postseason performances over the past several years, it's worth noting that his poor reputation in the postseason wasn't exactly fair. Yes, there have been some stinkers, but George went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals twice. He even took one of those series to a Game 7. He's plenty accomplished in the postseason. A few bad moments don't change that.
But even George's most ardent supporters couldn't have seen Game 5 coming. It wasn't quite as spectacular as Kevin Durant's Tuesday masterpiece, but it was great for similar reasons. In both cases, a player known primarily as a scoring wing had to lift his teammates on a depleted roster, and in both cases, they delivered. George was worth five first-round picks and then some in this game, and now, the Clippers are only one win away from their first-ever trip to the Western Conference finals.
2. Live by the 3, die by the 3
Ironically, launching a million 3-pointers is usually an underdog tactic. It's a way to maximize variance, which is typically something a favorite wants to avoid. The Jazz are an exception in that regard. They are built to shoot 3-pointers and have been rewarded for doing so all season. But that variance is what did them in on Wednesday. They went cold at the worst possible time.
The Jazz made a staggering 17 3-pointers in the first half on 30 attempts. Bojan Bogdanovic made six of them in the first quarter alone. And then, in the second half, they made only three of their 24 tries, and didn't hit a single attempt in the third quarter. The shot that lifted them into contention all season just stopped falling.
Under normal circumstances, the Jazz could have lived with that. A healthy Donovan Mitchell dominated the Clippers in the first two games of this series, but ever since he tweaked his ankle, he's been compromised. He shot 6-of-19 from the field in Game 5. That's another obstacle the Jazz normally could have overcome, but they played Game 5 without Mike Conley, as they have the entire series. Utah could survive one of those misfortunes. Maybe two. But not all three.
It was reminiscent of the Houston Rockets' collapse against the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals. Perhaps they could have beaten the Warriors despite an 0-for-27 shooting stretch from behind the arc, but with Chris Paul out, they just didn't have any other way of generating good shots. The Jazz had to keep firing because their typical forms of shot-creation went out the window. The result was stunning loss, and if Mitchell or Conley can't get healthy in time for Game 6, Utah's season might end on Friday.
3. The real winners of Game 5
Yes, this was a big, big win for the Clippers, but they weren't the only team thrilled with Wednesday's outcome. Let's talk about the Phoenix Suns for a moment. Earlier Wednesday, they learned that Chris Paul would be out indefinitely as part of the league's COVID-19 protocols. The longer they can hold off starting the Western Conference finals, the better their chance is of getting Paul back at some point in that series.
Well, there are three possible outcomes left in this series. If the Clippers win in six or seven, the Suns get to play against a team that is currently missing its best player due to injury. There's no telling when Kawhi Leonard will be back, so a matchup with the Clippers would be infinitely preferable to one with the Suns. And if Utah wins the series? Losing on Wednesday guaranteed that the series would go seven games rather than six. That's two extra days off before the Western Conference finals begin to help Paul get through the protocols that they wouldn't have had if the Jazz had won early.
The Suns obviously aren't happy with their position. They'd rather have Paul ready for Game 1. But all things considered, this is their best-case scenario. They either get home-court advantage against a team missing Leonard or they delay a series with Utah for as long as possible.