LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul slammed the ball in disgust. He tossed it once more for good measure.
After starting the season with the best record in the league, after losing a pair of All-Stars for more than a dozen games each, after clawing their way to home-court advantage in the first round of these playoffs, the Clippers’ season now comes down to this.
A Game 6 in Utah.
Lose and the Clippers will enter the offseason with more questions than ever, Blake Griffin with a bum toe, and those same two All-Stars deciding whether or not they want to return to the team that they have so consistently been unable to lead anywhere of consequence.
Despite a combined 54 points from Paul and an emergent J.J. Redick, the Clippers fell into one too many holes Tuesday and dropped a critical Game to the Jazz, 96-92.
Paul scored a game-high 28 points, while Redick added 26. However, the Jazz were buoyed by 27 points from Gordon Hayward, who missed most of Game 4 with food poisoning, and a combined 30 points off the bench from Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson.
After trailing by as many as 11 points in the fourth quarter, the Clippers hung around and trailed 90-87 on a pair of free throws by Paul with 36.1 seconds left.
Johnson, who bailed the Jazz out with big fourth-quarter performances in Utah’s wins in Games 1 and 4, answered with a step-back jumper with 19 seconds left to put Utah back ahead by five.
The Jazz went up by 11, their largest lead of the game, on a 3-pointer by Rodney Hood early in the fourth quarter. The Clippers responded with an 11-0 run to tie the score, a run that indcluded a pair of 3-pointers by Paul.
However, the Jazz responded with eight straight of their own to go up, 77-69.
The Clippers climbed within 80-78, but Johnson answered with a 3-pointer and the Clippers never got within two the rest of the way.
Sure, Paul buried another 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds left to cut the deficit to 94-92, but not since Redick missed a 3-point attempt with the Clippers trailing by two at the 7:07 mark of the fourth period had the Clippers had the ball with a chance to take the lead or even tie.
Not to get too carried away with the Clippers’ sordid, back-breaking history, but they do have experience with this sort of thing.
The game marked the 12th time the Clippers played Game 5 in a series tied, 2-2. After Tuesday they are 1-11 in such games.
As in the first four games, all decided in the fourth quarter, it came down to a free throw here, a rebound there.
George Hill’s 3-pointer from the corner with 42 seconds left was off the mark, and Hayward skied for the rebound. Paul dove to the ground to try to force a jump ball, but was instead called for a foul, sending Hayward to the line.
Paul exceeded 20 points for the fifth straight game, but for the second straight night, it wasn’t enough.
The Clippers led 42-38 late in the second quarter, but the Jazz used a pair of turnovers in succession to kickstart an 8-1 run and enter halftime…