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Unbalanced Lineup, Clock Management Doomed L.A. Clippers in Game 1

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Basketball is an emotional game.

Just listen to Memphis Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale after his team lost Game 2 to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night:

Everything is heightened in the postseason.

Coaches are rushed into press conferences shortly after difficult losses, where their decisions are questioned by the media. Usually, they’ll keep their composure. Usually …

On Sunday, Doc Rivers saw his Los Angeles Clippers fall at the buzzer to the Utah Jazz at Staples Center.

He may not have been in the best spirits postgame, leading to the following exchange:

The play in question involved the Clippers inbounding the ball out of a timeout with 18.7 seconds left down 95-93. Just 5.6 seconds later, Chris Paul tied up the score at 95.

Jazz Coach Quin Snyder opted to not call for time with 13 seconds left in regulation. Joe Johnson dribbled up the court and was freed from his defender in Blake Griffin by a Joe Ingles screen.

Picked up by Jamal Crawford, Johnson drove right at the veteran scorer. His floater needed a bounce but it fell through the rim to give the Jazz the buzzer-beating 97-95 win on the road. The fifth-seeded Jazz stole home court advantage, despite losing center Rudy Gobert to a knee injury on the first possession of the game.

Perhaps it was nothing more than bad luck for the Clippers, but it’s the journalist’s responsibility to try and understand what went wrong in the final moments.

Rivers seemingly made the mistake of planning for the single offensive possession without considering what comes next.

One option, the “dumbest thing” Rivers has ever heard apparently, was for Paul to milk the clock before shooting. Getting an attempt up with enough time for his teammates to grab an offensive board if needed — win or lose.

“Who would do that?” asked Rivers.

The obvious answer is the retired Kobe Bryant, who often approached late-game one-possession deficits in that manner.

In fact, that’s exactly what Bryant did in the playoffs when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns back in 2000 with his team down 96-95.

Bryant’s jumper left the Suns with just 2.6 seconds on the clock and his team was able to get a stop after a Phoenix timeout.

That’s not Rivers’ style, fair enough. It’s not for everyone, probably not most coaches, and Bryant was a special player.

Paul too is a special player, but Rivers wanted him to score and score quickly, so he did.

Rivers had called for time with 18.7 seconds and subbed out one of the best defenders in the league in Luc Mbah a Moute, along with Raymond Felton, for scorers J.J. Redick and Crawford.

Meanwhile, Snyder resisted conventional wisdom to call for time to set up a play for his team to take the lead. The game was won on that decision.

Snyder already had his optimal small-ball lineup of Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Derrick Favors, Johnson and Ingles on the floor. That group had been a problem for the Clippers for much of the night.

A timeout would not only allow the Clippers to set up defensively, but for Rivers to sub in Mbah a Moute. Worst case, the game goes to overtime if the Jazz do not score.

Rivers’ philosophy was “if you can score in one second, you do.”

As such, Rivers also needed to consider that Snyder might not call for time. Crawford is one of the best sixth-men in NBA history, and all-time interview subject, but he is a poor defender, especially one-on-one against Johnson.

Mbah a Moute should have been the player inbounding the ball with Jordan either a lob target or screen. Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan should be able to get a high quality shot off, even with Mbah a Moute as the fifth.

In fact, Mbah a Moute shot a very solid 39.1 percent from three-point range this season, better than Crawford’s 36.0 percent. Both players shot 33.3 percent from the field in Game 1 but while Crawford missed all four of his attempts from behind the arc, Mbah a Moute converted two of four.

Ultimately, Rivers unbalanced lineup cost the Clippers.

Had Paul run some clock down and scored, the Jazz would have needed to call for time and the Clippers could have subbed in Mbah a Moute. If they missed, they would have had a shot on the glass with two powerful rebounders in Jordan and Griffin (especially matched up against the Jazz’s smaller lineup).

If the plan is to score quickly, then do so with a group that has a shot to defend. Make no assumption that your opponent is going to call a timeout.

Snyder took advantage of Rivers’ mistake. The Clippers didn’t have their best players on the floor for a final offensive and defensive possession.

Running the clock down may be a dumb idea but the Clippers are the team down a game because of poor late-game execution.

Perhaps they’ll win Game 2 on Tuesday and steal one in Utah to even the series.

If not, though, maybe the decisions late in Game 1 may be the reason why the Clippers could be a disappointing first-round exit.

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About Eric Pincus

Eric Pincus

Eric Pincus is a Senior Writer for Basketball Insiders, with a focus on the business side of the game.