LOS ANGELES — The element of surprise is a razor-sharp weapon, so when LA Clippers guard Chris Paul tied the score with a leaning layup high off the glass with 13 seconds left in regulation, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder tossed the whiteboard aside.
“We wanted just to get it and go and let this man go to work,” Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said.
The man in question was Joe Marcus Johnson, professional scorer, manufacturer of points, and the NBA player who has drained more buzzer-beaters than any other over the past decade. The conditions for his eighth on Saturday night (no other player has more than four) were favorable. Thanks to a sturdy screen from teammate Joe Ingles, Johnson drew Jamal Crawford, a sharpshooter with a less-than-esteemed defensive reputation and the matchup the Jazz wanted to see.
“I remember Joe Ingles setting a pick, got Jamal Crawford on me, and I just seen the clock going down,” Johnson said. “I knew I had to make a play, I just wanted to get as close as I could to the basket, and it was a good thing it went down.”
During his prime seasons in Atlanta, Johnson earned the nickname “Iso Joe” for his propensity to play one-on-one basketball outside of a set offense. The tag was affixed as somewhat of a backhanded compliment. But Saturday night, after driving through the lane to close range to launch a running layup that went rim-glass-rim before falling through for the 97-95 win, Johnson explained the secret of Iso Ball through the mind of the poor defender opposite him.
“In those moments of the game, guys are not going to help,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of like you’re on an island by yourself and they expect for you to get that stop. Nobody wants their man to score, so I just try to be patient, get to a sweet spot, and make the right play.”
The win was improbable and all the more gratifying because the Jazz played all but 17 seconds without center Rudy Gobert, who suffered a hyperextension of his left knee and a bone bruise on the game’s very first possession.
The blow seemed cruel but almost fateful. The team estimated to have lost more wins this season due to injury watched their defensive anchor and the league leader in blocked shots and defensive real plus-minus crumple to the court.
“I think we felt and knew that a lot of people probably were counting us out when he went down,” Johnson said. “But man, we stuck together, fought hard for 48 minutes, we had ups and downs, but at the end of the day we came out with a win.”
The Jazz have been held together with duct tape this season as their starting backcourt of George Hill and Rodney Hood, as well as big man Derrick Favors, have all missed significant time. Gobert has been a constant, as Utah wins basketball games behind the strength of its stingy third-ranked defense.
The absence of Gobert presented serious challenges for a scheme etched around Gobert’s presence in the paint. But the Jazz summoned up a season’s worth of resilience to problem-solve. Favors, a “4-point-5” as the Jazz staff is fond of calling him, lives closer to the ground than Gobert but provided strong interior help. Utah’s wings bottled up J.J. Redick, who managed only six shot attempts Saturday.
“They were more aggressive for [Redick] coming off screens,” Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. “They were almost trapping every time. They never let him come off and get his rhythm. It’s part of what I said, they were really aggressive defensively.”
That aggressiveness included blitzing Blake Griffin in the post after the Clippers’ forward abused the Jazz in the first half. And late in the fourth, Johnson picked up Paul, affording the Jazz the flexibility to switch high screens.
Paul dominated the fourth quarter for the Clippers, as he personally kept the team close with 12 points in the final six minutes. The shocking Game 1 loss to a Jazz team absent its most dominant defender and arguably most indispensable player adds to the Clippers’ collection of playoff heartbreaks. Paul, Griffin and Redick enter free agency this summer. Whispers of “Do they blow it up?” will grow louder the closer the Clippers inch to mortality this postseason.
For all the talk of the Clippers’ core facing a reckoning this summer if they don’t exorcise their playoff demons, the Jazz enter the offseason at their own treacherous crossroads. Hayward will almost certainly opt out of the final years of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent for the first time. Hayward will certainly draw plenty of attention, be it from his beloved college coach Brad Stevens in Boston or a team with money to spend.
Hill, Utah’s starting point guard and a catalyst on both ends of the floor, passed on a contract extension this summer. The Jazz will have to work hard to retain his services, as he has become a front-office favorite around the league for his professionalism and versatility as a lanky point guard who can defend multiple positions and provide double duty in the backcourt as a spot-up shooter.
The Jazz have plenty to sell their free agents — rock-solid ownership and management, an exceptional coach, strong infrastructure and a professional culture. But small markets always face an uphill battle against sexier destinations and franchises who can point to fabric in the rafters.
An organization like the Jazz has to be able to sell a little magic, and on Saturday night they brewed a healthy dose.