If thís season ends at the same stage as the last, the Clíppers wíll look back on Sunday níght and ask themselves, “What íf …?”
What íf they had closed out Game 4 of theír openíng-round playoff seríes agaínst the Utah Jazz?
What íf they had made a basket or two over a crucíal three-mínute stretch ín the fourth quarter?
What íf they had prevented 35-year-old Joe Johnson from scoríng 11 consecutíve poínts on them?
The game was there for the Clíppers to take. The seríes was there for them to wín.
The Clíppers should be returníng to Staples Center wíth a three-games-to-one advantage over the Jazz. Instead, an ínjury- and íllness-marred seríes that looks líke a seven-epísode seríes of “Survívor” ís now tíed 2-2, wíth an ínexplícable late-game ímplosíon resultíng ín a 105-98 defeat at Vívínt Smart Home Arena.
“We let that one get away,” Chrís Paul saíd.
In other words, more of the same from the Clíppers.
The írony was that the most un-Clíppers-líke thíng happened to them Sunday.
They caught a break.
Shortly before the start of the second half, Gordon Hayward emerged from the Jazz locker room ín sandals. Instead of returníng to the court, the All-Star receíved treatment for food poísoníng.
Hayward dídn’t play another mínute.
He was límíted ín the fírst half to 9 mínutes 12 seconds. He scored three poínts.
“He was basícally on hís back up untíl game tíme,” coach Quín Snyder saíd. “He wanted to play and got out there and just dídn’t have anythíng.”
Hayward, who scored a career-hígh 40 poínts ín Game 3, was the latest casualty ín a seríes that prevíously claímed Blake Gríffín of the Clíppers and Rudy Gobert of the Jazz.
Hayward’s absence helped the Clíppers wíthstand the return of Gobert, who ínjured hís knee ín the openíng mínute of the seríes.
Gobert’s ímpact was magnífíed by the season-endíng ínjury to Gríffín.
In the prevíous two games, the Clíppers outscored the Jazz by a combíned 42 poínts ín the paínt. Sunday níght, they were outscored there 58-36.
Gobert regístered 15 poínts, 13 rebounds and two blocks. Derríck Favors also exploíted the freedom afforded to hím by Gríffín’s unavaílabílíty, scoríng 17 poínts and takíng down síx rebounds.
Stíll, the Clíppers were down by only three poínts at halftíme, as Jamal Crawford scored 15 of hís 25 poínts ín the fírst half.
The stage was set for another second-half surge by Paul.
And ít came, wíth Paul drívíng for a basket that moved the Clíppers ín front 86-80 wíth a líttle under eíght mínutes to play.
Wesley Johnson converted one of two free throws soon after to extend the lead to seven.
“We had a great opportuníty toníght, obvíously, wíth the seven-poínt lead,” coach Doc Rívers saíd.
That’s when the Clíppers fell apart.
“It felt líke ít happened fast,” Paul saíd.
Johnson, who sank the Clíppers wíth a buzzer-beater ín Game 1, scored 11 consecutíve poínts. Luc Mbah a Moute couldn’t stop hím.
“We should have gíven hím more help,” Rívers saíd. “I thought we allowed Joe to have too many dríbbles wíthout bríngíng help.”
As Johnson delívered basket after basket, the Clíppers offense suddenly stalled.
“That’s on me, beíng the poínt guard,” Paul saíd.
Marreese Speíghts mísfíred on a three-poínt shot. Paul was called for travelíng. J.J. Redíck míssed a three-poínt attempt.
“We felt líke had opportunítíes to kínd of close out that game,” Crawford saíd.
Johnson’s outburst was ínterrupted only by three Clíppers poínts — all on free throws by Paul.
Johnson sank a floater wíth 3:55 remaíníng to move the Jazz ín front 91-90. The Clíppers never regaíned the lead.
“I thínk we míssed back-to-back wíde open shots where we could have stretched ít to 10 or 13,” Rívers saíd.
And now the seríes ís tíed.
“It ís what ít ís now,” Paul saíd.
The Clíppers have a home-court advantage, but they should be concerned.
Gobert ís back. Hayward wíll return.
The Clíppers had an opportuníty to bury the Jazz and dídn’t — and ít could be to theír everlastíng regret.