Almost Upset: Clippers-Jazz 1992
Admittedly this is a borderline series to include in Almost Upset.
In the 1991-92 regular season, the Utah Jazz won 55 games and the Los Angeles Clippers 45 games. If the Clippers had won the series, it wouldn’t be the wildest thing in the world for a 45-win club to beat a 55-win team.
But it’s the Los Angeles Clippers!
This was the franchise’s first playoff appearance since the 1976 season when they were in Buffalo! We MUST chronicle this sorry club’s rise to (brief) respectability and how the Utah Jazz nearly embarrassed themselves by being the first team to lose a playoff series to the Clippers.
The Kansas Jayhawks defeated the Oklahoma Sooners, 83-79, becoming the kings of amateur basketball in the spring of 1988. Coaching the Jayhawks was Larry Brown and leading them on the court was Danny Manning. The Clippers’ turn from a laughingstock to 45-win club took four years to complete and rested on the shoulders of these two Jayhawks.
Meanwhile, the Clippers in ‘88 sucked as they usually did and had an NBA-worst 17-65 record. The Kansas college team went 27-11. You know it’s bad when the college club gets 10 more wins in essentially half the tries.
The Clippers at least won the NBA lottery and thus got the #1 overall pick in the draft. They chose Manning and good times were immediately on the waaaaaaa-aaaaaaait , nope. Nope, nope, nope. It’s the Clippers. Manning played just 26 games his rookie season (1988-89) because of a torn ACL.
To anyone following the 1980s Clippers, this was not a surprising turn of events. To quote an earlier ProHoopsHistory article on the Clippers sucking:
Anyhoo, the injuries are almost comical in their absurdity…
The explosive Derek Smith suffered damage to his knee cartilage early in the 1985 season that curtailed his burgeoning career.
Norm Nixon tore up his knee in the summer of 1986 playing charity softball and effectively ended his career.
Marques Johnson suffered a neck injury after colliding with teammate Benoit Benjamin in November 1986 that also served as a de facto career-ender.
Fortunately for the Clippers, taking Manning wasn’t their only draft day maneuver in 1988. LA held the #6 overall pick as well, courtesy of a trade from 1986 with the Sacramento Kings. The Clippers took Hersey Hawkins and immediately traded him (along with a future 1st round pick) to the Philadelphia 76ers for forward-center Charles Smith, whom Philly had taken with the 3rd overall pick.
The Clippers only had that extra future first rounder to send to Philly because of another draft day trade they had made with Seattle. Center Michael Cage was sent to the SuperSonics in exchange for the #15 overall pick in the 1988 draft, point guard Gary Grant, plus the future pick in 1989 that went to the 76ers.
The blandly named Smith and Grant performed quite well as rookies. Smith averaged 16.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 1.3 BPG. Grant was good for 11.9 PPG, 7.1 APG, and 2.0 SPG. Alongside them, small forward Ken Norman had a break out season in his sophomore campaign averaging 18.1 PPG and 8.3 RPG. None of those three players were going to be All-Stars, but this was a promising bunch to put alongside Manning when he returned from injury.
You know, assuming he didn’t fall down a bottomless pit. It’s the Clippers. It coulda happened…
Furthermore, the Clippers improved to a 21-61 record. Still awful, but improvement!
Garnering the #2 overall pick in the 1989 draft, the Clippers backed into good fortune by drafting Danny Ferry. Not because Ferry was any good. No good reader, he was mediocre at best. But fortunately, Ferry refused to play for the Clippers. The holdout continued until November when the Cleveland Cavaliers foolishly traded shooting guard Ron Harper to Los Angeles for the disgruntled, balding Dukie.
The trade sparked significant improvement as the Clippers went 30-52 in the 1989-90 season with the young core of Manning, Harper, Norman, Smith, and Grant somewhat established. I say “somewhat” because Harper went and tore his ACL in January of 1990 after being named NBA Player of the Week.
The club was 16-19 when Harper went down. Not a scintillating record, but it was a .457 win percentage, equivalent to 37 wins on the year. Had they kept that pace up, the Clippers would have had their best record since 1979. Instead, the Clips fizzled out with a 14-33 finish for that 30-52 record overall.
The 1990-91 season saw the ascent still sputtering. The team won 31 games as Harper returned midseason and Manning, now in his third season, finally became a full-time starter that February. Importantly, no one blew out a knee.
The 1991-92 campaign held further promise since the Clippers acquired point guard Doc Rivers in the offseason in exchange for the draft rights to Stacey Augmon.
And at last, Manning was unleashed. The forward averaged 35.4 MPG and started all 82 games that year. 19.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.5 BPG and .542 FG% were the gorgeous, varied counting stats. Manning had his drawbacks. He wasn’t the type of forward to muscle and barrel over the opposition. As you can tell, he was a good, but not great, rebounder for someone his size (6’10”). However, he was quick, clever, and possessed a twisting post-up game. Who needs to out-muscle the opponent when you got fancy footwork?
Harper also brought the juice that season as he fully rebounded from the bum knee with 18.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.9 SPG, and 0.9 BPG. If all you’ve seen of Ron is his shtick with the Bulls and Lakers late in his career, you missed out on an athletic freak at shooting guard.
The Clippers were improved, but still stuck in neutral. Trucking along at 21-24 they were on pace for 38 wins. Awesome for the Clippers, but suddenly the team had expectations. Thus, head coach Mike Schuler was axed. After two games with former ABA great Mack Calvin as interim coach, Larry Brown was brought in to guide the club.
(The craziest part is that Brown had been fired as Spurs coach earlier that season. And like not after a game or two, but THIRTY-FIVE GAMES into the season! That’s mid-January! Then during the All-Star Break, the Clippers hired him. Doing an article on that doozy… eventually…)
Brown immediately lit a fire under the club. Their first game with Larry on the sidelines was a 97-95 victory that happened to be the 600th of Brown’s career in the NBA/ABA.
Elgin Baylor even baked him a cake!
The Los Angeles Times’ Mike Downey was impressed by the Clippers’ newfound mojo that pushed them over the hump into the playoffs.
Finally in good shape physically, the Clippers had to worry about their mental health. Mike Schuler understood basketball from a technical standpoint, but didn’t seem to inspire his players. And this was a team that desperately needed to believe in itself.
Since Brown took charge, the Clippers have become a team that acts like a winner. You can tell, these guys no longer are distracted during the last two minutes by how they will blow the game. They think they will win.
With the Clippers amazingly finishing the season 45-37, Downey surmised that “few people east of Nevada will give these guys much chance to beat the Utah Jazz. But I do. They are good enough; they need only to believe it.”
SAME OLD SONG
Once upon a time the Utah Jazz had been a castaway franchise like the Clippers, desperately hoping to find playoff island as they clung to flotsam for dear life. Founded in 1974 in New Orleans, the Jazz did not make the playoffs until 1984, five years after they had moved to Salt Lake City. From that point forward, Utah under coach Frank Layden and then Jerry Sloan didn’t miss the playoffs again until 2004.
The initial playoff success was spearheaded by Adrian Dantley along with a supporting cast of Mark Eaton, Rickey Green, Darrell Griffith, and Thurl Bailey.
Over the years, the cast was slowly turned over due to age, injury, and trade. The only remaining player from Utah’s first playoff team was the gargantuan Eaton.
Every one else was going, going, gone…
John Stockton supplanted Green at point guard. Karl Malone replaced Dantley as the team’s go-to scorer. Griffith’s career was altered by a broken foot in 1985. He retired in 1991 and Jeff Malone eased in as Utah’s new shooting guard. Annoyingly, Bailey was traded midway through the ‘92 season to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Tyrone Corbin.
(This is not meant as ill commentary toward Corbin. I just love Thurl Bailey and his goggles.)
Although routine participants in the playoffs now, the Jazz were also starting to become routine disappointments.
In 1988, the Jazz won a franchise record 47 games and gave the Los Angeles Lakers hell in a seven-game semi-finals series. That 47-win campaign capped off five consecutive seasons with win totals in the 40s. In 1989, the Jazz seemed to finally break through after coming so close to beating the Lakers the previous year. Utah pushed up to 51 wins, again a franchise record, and won the Midwest Division garnering the #2 seed out West.
The breakthrough quickly collapsed.
They lost in the first round. In a sweep. To the 43-win Golden State Warriors. Each defeat was worse than the one before it. Game 1? A four-point loss. Game 2? An eight-point loss. Game 3? A 14-point blowout.
In 1990 they made another franchise record of 55 wins. They lost in the first round. This time, however, they were matched up against the 54-win Phoenix Suns and the series went five games. The Jazz lost the deciding game at home, 104-102.
In 1991, Utah held steady with 54 wins and reached the semi-finals, where they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in five games. You can just feel the fans starting to get restless!
Well for 1992, the Jazz won 55 games again. Best in the Midwest Division, again. The club would actually reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time, but obviously it wasn’t an easy road if I’m writing about them here in Almost Upset.
OFFICIAL PROHOOPSHISTORY STARTING LINEUP SCOREBOARD
(the deeper the shade, the bigger the presumable advantage)
Well, the Clippers have more advantages, but they’re marginal. Meanwhile, the Jazz’s two advantages are at spots where the opposing player can conceivably shackle Stockton and/or Malone on a given night. But don’t count on it. Rivers and Manning were really good, even excellent, players with Manning in the smack dab of his prime. But Malone and Stockton were obviously destined for the Hall of Fame at this point.
Also of note: the discrepancy in playoff experience.
Sure the Jazz had some (several) disappointments, but they had at least experienced something. Most of the Clippers players were in their first playoff series. The only rotation players with significant playoff time were Rivers and center James Edwards. They had dozens of playoff games under their collective belt. Besides them, though, only Ron Harper had seen playoff action. And that was just a smattering of games in the late 1980s with the Cavaliers before Cleveland stupidly traded him away.
PREDICTION: Jazz in four!
Well, this was an ass whoopin’. One of them slow strangulation type games.
The Jazz won the first quarter by six points, the second by six, and the third by nine, thus building a 21-point lead after three quarters. Los Angeles looked like deer in the headlights, except for Rivers who came off the bench scoring 23 points on 8-14 FGs and 5-5 FTs. The superb play would get him the starting job for the rest of the series over Gary Grant, who scored just two points.
The Jazz were unsurprisingly carried by Stockton, Malone, and Malone. The point guard had 10 points and 21 assists. The shooting guard Malone had 29 points on 12-19 FGs. The power forward Malone had 32 points and 10 rebounds.
Not much else to say about this one.
Okay, we’re getting better.
The Clippers actually came out and won the first quarter, 28-22. The Jazz evened things out to make it 48-48 at halftime. Then the dam broke in the third quarter as Utah won the period 27-19 and left Los Angeles dazed…
Once again, Stockton menaced the Clippers with 21 points and 19 assists. Karl Malone got 32 points again, but his field goals were bad (7-19) while his free throws were copious and shockingly good (18-22). Jeff Malone scored 24 points on 11-21 shooting.
However, an ominous pattern had set in for Utah. Their thin bench provided just 16 points split evenly between Corbin and Mike Brown. Even in the starting lineup, Eaton and Blue Edwards provided just 10 points to support Stockton and the Malones.
Utah was getting these wins, but the offensive load leaned heavily on three men. If only the Clippers could get their act together and exploit the top-heavy opponent…
Now we got a series!
With their first-ever playoff game in LA, the Clippers spanked the Jazz. All five of their starters finished in double figures with Manning, king of the quick-flip jump hook, leading the way with 17 points. The bench provided 28 points fairly split between four players.
Meanwhile the Jazz found out what happens when their Big Three struggled. Stockton had 20 points and 13 assists, but shot just 5-14 FGs. Jeff Malone was horrendous: 11 points with nothing else except a rebound on 5-15 FGs.
That means that, ugh, Karl Malone was the only bright spot with 22 points, 10 boards, six dimes, two steals, and two blocks on 9-17 FGs.
I mean, Blue Edwards and Corbin did combine for 23 points on 10-19 shooting, but it was clearly not enough. A sneaky, unnoticed bright side for Utah was rookie small forward David Benoit getting his first run of the series. Six points in nine minutes.
Something to keep an eye on…
THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON
The day after Clippers got their win Los Angeles exploded and it wasn’t to celebrate Danny Manning & Co.
The police officers who beat the shit out of Rodney King in 1991 were acquitted on all charges by a jury of their peers on April 29, 1992. Los Angeles erupted in revolt at the bullshit. Lasting through May 4, over 50 people were killed and over 2000 injured in the violence. The cops getting off free ignited the disturbances, but LA was a powder keg of racism waiting to blow up.
So, uh, naturally the Clippers did not resume their series with the Jazz as scheduled at the LA Sports Arena. Game 4 was delayed until May 3 and was played at the Anaheim Convention Center in Orange County as the National Guard was called in to subdue the worst riot the United States had seen since Martin Luther King’s assassination a quarter-century earlier.
Back to basketball! The most important thing at the moment. And we got a competitive showdown. Finally.
The Clips didn’t put the Jazz away until the fourth quarter in this one. And the Jazz actually held the lead 105-104 with 1:54 left in the contest after a Jeff Malone runner in the lane. The Clippers then posted an 11-2 run to finish out the game. There’s that Jazz mettle we’ve come to know and love.
Alas, I have the unenviable duty to report that Karl Malone didn’t just have a good game. He had a fucking great game: 44 points on 11-18 FGs and 22-24 FTs. He just eviscerated the Clippers frontline.
Stockton (16 points, 18 assists, 5-12 FGs) and the other Malone (18 points, 8-19 FGs), were not abjectly terrible, so that allowed Utah to keep things tight throughout the game.
But the Clippers again found better balance.
Manning easily had his best game thus far. It didn’t quite match Karl Malone’s output, but it was a sterling performance: 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 12-20 FGs. The rest of the starters, led by Ron Harper’s 26, combined for 73 points.
Plus Doc Rivers scored 11 points in the final frame, including a perfect nine-for-nine from the free throw line.
So after four games, the Jazz were once again on the brink of playoff disappointment. Just sitting there on the verge of losing as a 55-win two seed for the second time in four years.
The Jazz didn’t blow it, but boy they came close. Much closer than the final score indicates.
Anyways, Utah better thank their lucky stars David Benoit showed up off the bench in this game cuz they looked like dookie in the first quarter.
The Clippers defensively swarmed Utah and took a 14-2 lead to open the contest and were thoroughly kicking Utah’s azz. Manning had 12 points in the first quarter and Harper added eight. A miracle Delaney Rudd (who?) three at the buzzer somewhat salvaged the Utah catastrophe, but the Jazz were still down 30-18.
In the second quarter, Utah made a surge thanks to Jeff Malone getting hot. They even got the score down to 42-40. The pesky Clips however closed the quarter out brilliantly to maintain a 52-40 lead going into the half. I’m delighted to inform everyone that Karl Malone shot 2-7 from the free throw line in the first half. His struggles would wonderfully continue.
In the second half, the Clippers weren’t quite as crisp as they had been, but carried a 61-51 lead with 6:55 remaining in the 3rd quarter. They even held a 77-70 edge as the quarter wound down having beaten back Utah surges.
But Benoit swished a three-pointer off a beautiful whip pass from Stockton with 1.4 seconds remaining to edge the Jazz closer, 77-73.
This augured poorly for the Clippers in the 4th.
Stockton, who only had six points entering the final quarter, immediately opened the fourth with a tough scoop lay up. Benoit continued his great game by blocking an epic dunk attempt from Ken Norman. Utah then tied the score at 77, but didn’t get the lead for good until a Mike Brown lay up (his only field goal of the night) made it 83-82 with 7:54 left in the game. The tide was measurably turning in Utah’s favor, but the game was still a slog and up for grabs.
Until Benoit made another three with 4:25 left to put Utah up, 91-84.
The Clippers technically still had some hope down 91-86, but the referees called a terrible loose ball foul on Danny Manning. There was a foul on the play, but Doc Rivers was the Clipper who knocked over Mike Brown, not Manning. Nonetheless, it was Manning’s sixth personal and he was ejected from the game.
That sealed the deal.
Also sealing the deal was the fact that LA shot 2-21 from the field in the fourth quarter. Weeeee bit of an issue when trying to close out a playoff game on the road.
Anyhoo, Benoit had been brilliant all night for Utah. In 33 minutes, he contributed 16 points, seven boards, and three blocked shots. In the previous four games, the small forward had played 22 minutes total. Jerry Sloan found a hot hand and rode it all night.
The Jazz needed that hot hand cuz Karl Malone suuuucked. 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Mailman, but he shot a horrific 5-17 from the field and 9-14 from the foul line.
In the next round Utah pushed aside the Sonics in five games. From afterthought to key piece, Benoit started all five of those games.
Sadly, his run of glory ended in the Western Conference Finals against Portland. That series was tied 2-2 when Benoit’s father died of cancer. Understandably he missed the final two games of the series and the Blazers pushed on to the NBA Finals. Utah, of course, would eventually reach the NBA Finals, but it’d be a few years down the line.
We’ll be seeing them again in Almost Upset during their ‘98 run.
BACK FOR MORE
Having tasted their first measure of any success, the Clippers wisely kept the core of Manning, Harper, and Norman together for another go ‘round with Larry Brown as head coach.
General manager Elgin Baylor did swing a major trade, though.
A three-team deal involving the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic netted the Clippers point guard Mark Jackson and center Stanley Roberts in exchange for Doc Rivers and Charles Smith. A minor deal also saw the acquisition of ProHoopsHistory favorite John “Hot Plate” Williams.
This roster won 41 games in ‘93 as they enjoyed a remarkably stable season for once. No catastrophic injuries, no coaching changes, no mayhem. The top eight players in their rotation each played at least 74 games.
Their reward was the seventh seed once again. Their opponent was another 55-win team: the Houston Rockets.
The Clippers gave them hell and we’ll see how Hakeem Olajuwon had to perform one of his greatest games just to silence the lowly Clips.
That’s next time on Almost Upset.