The Clippers had enough to withstand one run Thursday.
It was the second that ended their night.
Now, a team that has fallen behind two games to none already once in this postseason and lived to tell about it, returns to Los Angeles facing a similar hole.
Will the second time end their season?
“We’re bound to get hot,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said.
Predicting what will happen in a series that has defied easy description could be a foolhardy task. Utah won this second-round series opener despite once missing 20 consecutive shots. In Thursday’s Game 2, a 117-111 Jazz victory, the Clippers unraveled and steadied themselves with equally shocking speed. Trailing by 21 in the third quarter after allowing a 24-5 run by Utah, having exhausted nearly every defensive strategy and seen them all backfire against Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, the Clippers finally found their zone, and not in a metaphorical sense.
Two defenders moved around the three-point arc, with three teammates behind them, and the shifting shape generated confusion instead of open shots for the Jazz. Mitchell, after 27 points in the first half, had just three in the third quarter. The Clippers began a 22-6 run, and with 6:55 to play in the fourth quarter, Jackson — whose offense had lifted his team just as their defense began to find its footing — drilled a three-pointer for a 101-99 lead, the Clippers’ first of the game.
“I think we found something that we liked,” Jackson said of playing zone. “We had to switch something up. It helped us out some.”
A game that appeared over was in doubt. Utah’s vise grip on the series had loosened. Several in sold-out Vivint Arena covered their heads with their hands.
But the Clippers could not finish the job, outscored 14-4 during a five-minute stretch that began just after Jackson’s shot.
Jackson scored a team-high 29 points, including 14 in the third quarter, and Paul George added 27. Kawhi Leonard had 21 points.
Mitchell scored 37 for Utah, with seven in the fourth quarter.
The brutal start mirrored a start that was no easier for the Clippers, who fell behind 10-2 for a second consecutive game despite switching up their starting lineup to insert 7-foot center Ivica Zubac in place of 6-8 Nicolas Batum.
The Clippers’ smaller lineups switched screens with the intent to goad Utah into one-on-one offense; with Zubac playing a “drop” coverage that left him standing several feet away from the screen, Donovan Mitchell was able to walk into uncontested jumpers, which he sank. The new look ended after four minutes when Zubac let the game with two fouls, setting the stage for Batum’s return.
Utah ended the first half on a 14-3 run over 3 minutes, which began when backup center DeMarcus Cousins’ minutes outlived their effectiveness. In less than 80 seconds, Cousins traveled, missed a three-pointer and was blocked at the rim by Gobert, and Utah seized on the empty possessions, scoring six points to take their first double-digit lead.
“The first half, you can’t dig yourself a hole like that against a good team and then have to expend all your energy to get back in the game,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “You don’t have enough to finish.”
That the Clippers have been here before is no consolation. Utah is not Dallas. Deep and experienced, with an all-NBA scorer at the helm in Mitchell surrounded by Rudy Gobert, a three-time defensive player of the year whose mere presence altered numerous Clippers drives, Utah has shown a steely resolve through two games and now stands two victories from their first Western Conference final since 2007.
“We’re going to have to trust each other,” Jackson said. “… We have to take some onus on the ball and take some pride in guarding one on one.”
The Clippers made only four of their 13 three-pointers in the fourth quarter, with many of them uncontested after they’d unlocked their efficiency by finally driving into the paint and spreading passes out to waiting shooters.
“Four or five wide open threes,” Lue said. “We just didn’t make them.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.