In the third quarter on Tuesday, it looked like the Utah Jazz were going to make the Los Angeles Clippers uncomfortable. Already with a 1-0 lead in the series, the Jazz had cut into a 13-point deficit in Game 2 and hung around for a while. After a beautiful pass from Boris Diaw set up a Derrick Favors layup, the Clippers were only up by three points.
If you believe in the concept of momentum, then Utah clearly had it. On the very next possession, Chris Paul snatched it back.
Paul, perhaps the premier game manager of his generation, started the process of preserving his team’s lead by making a deep 3-pointer. Both George Hill and Gordon Hayward approached him when he caught the ball, and he froze Hayward with a ball fake. When Hayward retreated to the corner, Hill gave Paul just enough space for a clean look:
Paul, generously listed at 6 feet tall, swatted Hill’s shot out of bounds on the next play. Hill was chiefly concerned with getting his shot off over Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Paul had eight blocks in the entire regular season, but he rejected it with the force — and the facial expression — of someone who protects the paint all the time:
Just about immediately after the block came the steal. Paul broke up a simple handoff from Diaw to Hill, staying attached to Hill and slapping the ball away as soon as he put it on the floor. Paul then recovered it, raced the other way and made a layup in transition:
Suddenly, it was an eight-point game. A few minutes later, it was a 12-point game. The Clippers never turned it into a blowout, but they kept the Jazz at bay. Paul finished with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 10 assists, two rebounds and three steals in the 99-91 victory, and he did it in 33 minutes because of foul trouble in the first half.
“He was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was good through adversity, which I thought was really good. He got in foul trouble early and we weathered that storm as a team, but he had to weather the storm, sitting. Those uneven minutes for guys throw you off, and I thought it never threw him off. I thought he kept his rhythm, he kept his patience, he kept his peace if you know what I mean. So I thought that was terrific.”
Paul didn’t do it all himself. Blake Griffin had a game-high 24 points and five rebounds. DeAndre Jordan had 18 points and 15 boards. The team defense was excellent. Paul did, however, keep the Clippers in control. Jazz coached Quin Snyder called him “probably the best pick-and-roll player in the league,” and Paul was a big reason why Los Angeles scored 60 points in the paint.
The poise, precision and purpose were even more impressive because of the situation the Clippers were in. A loss would have been perceived as a total catastrophe, triggering questions about their mental toughness, the dreaded “Clippers curse” and, of course, the future of their core. Paul consistently created open looks against a long and versatile defensive team, and on the other end he was locked in, doing everything he could to disrupt the Jazz’s flow.
As evenly matched as these teams are, the rest of this series could be decided by who makes the big plays in big moments. Sometimes, that means a. Other times, it means a series of timely plays earlier than that, punching back at an opponent trying to make a run. One Clippers advantage that isn’t going away: When they need someone to make something happen, they have Paul on their side.