We’ve got to be just as desperate in the (second) game; we can’t be satisfied to just get one game. —Joe Johnson
LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers, one of the nicest people ever to toss a towel, was in no mood for the line of questioning Saturday night. But by midday Sunday, he was back to himself.
“It was only one loss,” the L.A. Clippers’ coach said, a day after their 97-95 playoff loss to the Jazz. “I mean, you got to win four. It just changes series, in the fact you have to win four now, and they have to win three.”
That was the normal Doc. On a regular basis, he is the guy to ask for a ride. The person who would give you the shirt off his back — then autograph it.
But after his team’s Game 1 loss to Utah, a reporter asked whether the Clippers could have run down the clock, so the Jazz wouldn’t have time to retaliate with Joe Johnson’s buzzer-beater.
“Who would do that?” Rivers said. “Why would you ever do that?”
Rivers followed up with these gems: “That makes no sense.”
“That is like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Meanwhile, guard Chris Paul wasn’t exactly in party mode, either.
“It sucks that we lost, and to tell you the truth, we’ve sucked pretty bad here at home in the playoffs anyway. Know what I mean?”
Does this look like a team that is unraveling? Not necessarily. But it does look like it’s dancing with the Devil. One more loss and you can practically book them a bus ticket to Meltdown, USA. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the peanut butter and jelly of the Clippers, can become free agents this summer, and it’s expected they’ll exercise their options. Maybe that’s why the team actually serves PB&J sandwiches in the pressroom — a reminder how much they mean to the franchise.
With that in mind, it seems likely the Clippers, as constituted, won’t stay together without a deep playoff run, which makes the rest of this series all the more interesting. The Clippers went 14-2 to start the season and 7-0 to finish it.
In between, nothing special.
In their defense, the Clippers — like the Jazz — have had their share of injuries. Paul and Griffin each missed 21 games with an assortment of dents and scrapes. But that doesn’t entirely account for losses to non-playoff teams such as Denver, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Sacramento.
Then there are the playoff problems.
Although this is their sixth consecutive postseason appearance, they have lost three times in the conference semifinals and twice in the first round since 2012. For a team as talented as the Clippers, that’s well below expectations.
When Jazz coach Quin Snyder was asked late last week if he saw the Clippers as “sleeping giants” when he was an assistant for L.A. (1992-93), he said, “I would say an awakened giant, in my mind. They’ve been pretty wide awake.”
In that case, someone slipped them a mickey on Saturday.
How the Clippers lost to a Jazz team without Rudy Gobert — claimed by a hyperextended knee 11 seconds into the contest — is unfathomable. They said afterward it was poor defense. Yes, but why?
That would take a visit to a Venice Beach mind reader to know.
Thus, the Jazz must pounce while the chance is there.
“We’ve got to be just as desperate in the (second) game; we can’t be satisfied to just get one game,” Johnson said. “And obviously we want to try to be a little greedy — but it will be tough. We can’t play satisfied.”
That will be a big order as long as Gobert is injured. Conversely, the Clippers are vulnerable and they know it.
“It’s early. It’s one game. But we have to play better,” Rivers said, striking the balance between soothing and concerned. “You can’t just say it’s one game and show up the next day.”
As for Gobert’s unexpected absence, Rivers said, “It’s funny; it should have helped us. When you look at our games that have been successful, it was our guards going downhill into the paint on Gobert and creating action. So, logically, he’s out — we should be like ‘Let’s really go downhill.’ We didn’t go downhill a lot.”
That’s a phrase he might want to avoid.