NBA Playoffs: Jazz's poise against Clippers shows last summer's plan worked perfectly
Utah's veterans are helping Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert win when it matters
This time last year, the Utah Jazz had already been on vacation for a week-and-a-half, having missed the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. Despite ample preseason hype, the 2015-16 version of the team finished 40-42, thanks largely to a series of significant injuries and a lot of losses in close games. Up and down the roster, there were young players who were either productive or full of potential. They were better than their record, but they needed more.
Now, the Jazz are one win away from ending the Los Angeles Clippers' season, having won Game 5 on Tuesday 96-92 at Staples Center. It was their second road win of the series, and they pulled it off despite superstar guard Chris Paul doing all he could in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his 28 points and using every veteran trick in the book. Clippers guard J.J. Redick, quiet for most of the series, scored 14 of his 26 points in the final frame, too, but it wasn't enough for them to get past Utah.
Los Angeles was missing star forward Blake Griffin, who is out for the postseason with a toe injury, but that fact does not detract from what the Jazz did. They matched Paul's excellent execution down the stretch, and Joe Johnson once again played hero with a midrange jumper and a spot-up 3 in the final three minutes.
Before all of that, the Clippers hit Utah with an 11-0 run early in the fourth quarter. It happened in about two minutes, and all of the points were scored by Paul and Redick. The Jazz stayed poised, though, and this has become a theme in the series. The 35-year-old Johnson, in particular, has quickly become an icon in Utah. He has shot 8-for-10 in clutch situations against Los Angeles, making a game-winner in the series opener and scoring or assisting on 20 straight Jazz points late in Game 4. When he did his thing again, it wasn't even surprising.
Johnson is one of the best stories of the playoffs. And while Utah's front office might not have seen this kind of performance from him, the broad strokes of its plan are on display.
Let's rewind again to last summer. The up-and-coming Jazz had plenty of promise, but they didn't have playoff experience or depth. They could have used some more versatility, too. Coach Quin Snyder had given them an identity -- a disciplined defense built around the unique talents of Rudy Gobert, plus an deliberate, pass-happy offensive system built around having multiple playmakers -- and the front office targeted vets who would fill their needs and fit right in. Utah no longer wanted to add guys to its development program; it wanted players who could take the team to another level.
George Hill was the biggest acquisition. He cost the Jazz the No. 12 pick in last year's draft, and if they are able to sign him to a long-term deal, that will look like a steal. Hill is an elite defender who can guard bigger players, and he is the ideal kind of point guard for how Utah's roster is constructed. Since Snyder likes to use wings as playmakers, the team needed someone who was comfortable playing off the ball and spotting up.
Boris Diaw was basically a gift from the Spurs, who needed to clear cap space to sign Pau Gasol. He came into the league as a point guard, made his name as a center and, well, there is no one quite like him. Diaw can make plays, defend multiple positions and he loves to pass the ball so much that all of his former coaches have yelled at him to shoot more. In other words, he's a perfect Jazzman.
And then there was Johnson. On Tuesday Snyder recalled meeting with him in free agency and selling him on taking on a different kind of role. He had played a bit of power forward with the Miami Heat last season, and Utah wanted him to sort of do a lot more of it. Johnson knew his minutes would decline significantly, and he also knew he could help the Jazz handle high-pressure situations.
"He knew that we had wings and understood that his role would be -- I think he'd started every game since like 2003, I think that's right," Snyder said correctly. "That's a long run, and we talked about it. I was like, 'Are you sure?'"
Johnson was indeed sure, and judging by the opportunity he has had in the playoffs, he couldn't have made a better decision. All season, Utah's younger players have raved about the wisdom that Hill, Diaw and Johnson have brought brought to the locker room. This is certainly a part of how they've stayed steady and managed to persevere over a Clippers team that has been here before.
"I think we were the youngest team in the league last year by certain measures," Snyder said. "I know people evaluate that in a number of different ways, but we were right there. I think pretty simply, adding Joe and Boris and George has given some confidence to our group. That didn't just happen in the playoffs. That happened throughout the course of the year."
The Jazz, however, didn't sign these guys just to be mentors. After a few years of awful injury luck, they needed more bodies in case they had to deal with it again. It turned out that they did -- their preferred starting lineup only played together for 14 games in the regular season -- but they won 51 games anyway. Part of that was because of major improvement from Gobert and Gordon Hayward, who made his first All-Star appearance, but a lot of it was simply because there were more rotation-caliber players on the bench.
No one knows how many games Utah might have won if it had even a league-average amount of games lost to injury, but there might have been a silver lining to that situation. Snyder had to improvise, and all the multidimensional players on the roster meant he had all sorts of flexibility. On Tuesday he thought Hill was fatigued, so he went without a traditional point guard for two different stretches in the second half.
"Well, we've played a lot of different lineups," Snyder said. "We have four point guards on our roster, there was a point when two or three of them were hurt. So we've used Joe Ingles at that position. I'm confident in our wings' ballhandling ability. And then when you put Joe Johnson on the floor also, you've got four guys. If it's Rodney [Hood], Gordon, Joe Ingles and Joe, there's no pure point guard. And you worry a little bit about guys getting pressured, but hopefully they can just share it. And it makes us pretty good defensively at times."
Occasionally, teams stumble into success in the playoffs. That is not the Jazz's story. Regardless of how this series ends, the mere fact they've gotten this far is a reflection of how accurately they assessed their roster when they fell short.
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