The first half of Tuesday’s eventual 112-109 setback against the Utah Jazz gave us a glimpse into just how terrifying the Clippers can be when they’re operating at full capacity. Despite having enjoyed just 48 hours between their Game 7 win over the Mavericks and Game 1 in Salt Lake City, LA looked primed to make a statement in one of the game’s most hostile road environments.
The Clips jumped out to a 60-47 halftime lead over the team that finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record. This despite the fact that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who carried the offense through most of the first-round series, combined to contribute a measly 12 of those points on 13 attempts from the field.
Role Players Showed Up
After running a tight, undersized rotation against the Mavs, Ty Lue reversed course completely in the first half on Tuesday. 11 Clippers saw floor time in the game’s first 24 minutes. That included DeMarcus Cousins, who logged as much playing time as I did against Dallas. Patrick Beverley was dusted off after being benched in the latter stages of the first round, while Ivica Zubac returned to the rotation in order to tangle with Rudy Gobert.
Zubac was great after coming on halfway through the first. He finished the half with 8 points, 4 rebounds, and a couple of blocks while helping keep Gobert under wraps. Gobert had just 1 offensive board in the first half, and keeping him from killing them on the glass was always going to be crucial to LA’s chances in this series.
The Clippers shot 47% and made 3 more buckets in the first half than Utah despite the Jazz attempting 11 more shots from the field. LA capitalized from long range, connecting on 11 of their 3-point attempts. Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, and Nic Batum combined for more than half of those.
Cousins didn’t even play a full 4 minutes, but they were eventful. At one point he rejected Gobert, came down with the rebound, sprinted down to the other end, and converted an and-1, all while Ian Eagle was busy mistaking him for Marcus Morris. It’s hard to blame him considering he and 90% of the people watching the game had probably forgotten that Boogie even played for the Clippers. Cousins also committed 3 fouls, but the officiating was questionable at best all night long.
Things took a turn for the worse in the second half, and fatigue was very clearly a factor. Kawhi was leaving just about everything short all night long, while George was close to a no-show offensively. If at least one of those two comes in with an average offensive outing in Game 1, the Clippers are up 1-0 right now.
A loss is a loss, of course. Blowing a double-digit lead on the road is the type of game that typically would feel like a missed opportunity, but the Clippers should be pretty happy with how things turned out, all things considered. The condensed schedule could be an issue, but the stars will rise to the occasion before the series is over. Expecting one or both of them to struggle moving forward feels silly.
Depth Is Key For LA
The Clippers have been among the league’s title frontrunners ever since bringing Leonard and George to town. We haven’t seen the team’s ceiling very often ever since, but there’s a reason Vegas is generally optimistic about their title-winning potential.
Depth tends to prove useful over the course of a playoff series, especially the deeper you get into the playoffs. Utah has plenty of weaponry with an array of lethal shooters around Donovan Mitchell, but depth isn’t necessarily a strong suit for that team. If the Clips can make life a bit more difficult for Mitchell, they’re in a good spot. Luke Kennard is not the answer, in spite of how well as he played offensively in Game 1.
Lue’s decision to throw some curveballs in the first half worked beautifully because most of the role players stepped up. Zubac, Batum, Jackson, Kennard, and Terance Mann should have regular roles in this series moving forward. A few minutes of Boogie (or Serge Ibaka, if alive) in low-leverage minutes shouldn’t kill them, either. Rajon Rondo, on the other hand, should take a one-way ticket to Benchville.
The Clippers will be fine. Game 1 proved that they’re as lethal as anybody when their supporting cast actually shows up. Once Kawhi and PG-13 find their footing, there’s no reason to think LA can’t finally survive the second round.
Hanging 60 points in a half on Utah in Utah is not an easy task, yet the Clippers did it without either of their stars playing like stars in Game 1.
Championship teams get contributions from every corner of the roster over the course of a long playoff run. If the non-stars can continue to hold up, the fully-realized Clippers are extremely dangerous.