If it were not for the Clippers’ proven ability to overcome an 0-2 deficit, there would likely be little to no optimism amongst the fanbase. Unfortunately, the Clippers’ comeback in Round 1 is currently the only reason for optimism amongst the fanbase, because their play in Round 2 has provided none of it. After getting by on their built in fatigue excuse in Game 1, the Clippers did little in Game 2 to prove that fatigue was indeed the driving force behind their Game 1 loss.
After falling behind by 21-points nearly midway through the 3rd quarter, the Clippers eventually led at one point during the 4th. Because of this, many will look only at what transpired down the stretch due to it being anyone’s game at that point. While this is understandable, and not entirely wrong, it is important to analyze the game’s entirety when searching for ways to improve going forward.
The Clippers decided to make a starting lineup change ahead of Game 2, and started Ivica Zubac over Nicolas Batum at center. Despite starting, Big Zu only played 14 total minutes, with the rest of the center duties going to DeMarcus Cousins and different iterations of small ball. As impactful as Zu has been this season, and as appealing as it is to counter Gobert’s size with him, Utah’s offense has just seemed to thrive when he is out there.
The Clippers’ defensive rating in Zu’s 34 minutes this series is 120.0, largely due to Utah’s perimeter players hunting him on the switch and making him defend in space. This is a similar development to what we saw in the Dallas series, when the Clippers had a 123.8 DRTG and -19.0 NTRG when Zu was on the floor.
Zubac’s inability to defend Utah’s perimeter players is not why the Clippers lost this game, but the rush to start him did not make much sense. With Batum on the floor in this series, the Clippers’ offense and defense has looked its best. His ability to switch defensively, and draw Gobert out of the paint on offense, are two key attributes that Big Zu just does not posses. Removing him from the starting lineup, and then playing him just 27 minutes, did not seem like the right move.
With Big Zu’s struggles being directly tied to a lack of foot speed, DeMarcus Cousins struggled even more in his limited minutes. While Ty Lue is handcuffed without Serge Ibaka, Thursday’s game likely proved that small ball is the Clippers’ best chance at countering Utah’s offensive and defensive attack.
Another decision by Ty Lue in this game that just did not make sense, was waiting until Donovan Mitchell had already gone nuclear before throwing Patrick Beverley on him. It has been well documented, even by Mitchell himself, that Pat Bev is the Clippers’ best option to defend him.
In the 18 minutes Patrick Beverley and Donovan Mitchell have shared the floor in this series, the Utah Jazz have an 84.2 ORTG and a -13.2 NTRG. The Clippers are outscoring Utah by 6 points in these minutes. As Ty Lue proved in the 4th quarter, playing Patrick Beverley does not have to mean sacrificing Reggie Jackson’s offense. The two can coexist as long as Rondo is out of the rotation.
While Ty Lue’s decision making has been far from ideal, the Clippers have had an opportunity to win both of these first two games regardless. The reason they have not, is because they have simply squandered too many opportunities.
As has become commonplace is these NBA playoffs, especially against the Clippers, teams’ best players have been elevating their game to new levels. So far in this series, Donovan Mitchell has done exactly that. While Kawhi Leonard successfully played hero ball in Round 1, neither him nor Paul George have been good enough yet in Round 2.
Through two games, Kawhi Leonard is averaging just 22 PPG on 47.2% from the field and 37.5% from deep. His running mate, Paul George, is averaging 23.5 PPG, but on an abysmal 34.3% from the field. For PG, the efficiency is clearly an issue; however, for Kawhi, the issue is a lack of volume.
Through two games, Kawhi is averaging 18.0 FGA per game. For comparison, Donovan Mitchell is averaging 29.5 FGA per game. Donovan Mitchell is taking almost 12 more shots per game than Kawhi Leonard. Why is this? Because Spida knows he is the best player on this Utah Jazz team, and he knows they will live and die with the shots he takes. If the Clippers are going to reach their peak, they obviously need Paul George to shoot better, but they also need an increased level of adamancy from Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi’s lack of shot volume is not entirely a fault of his own. The Utah Jazz defense has made a concerted effort to double him, and this has been made possible by Marcus Morris and his inability to make a shot. The reason the Clippers traded for Marcus Morris last year, is because he provided a shooting threat that Maurice Harkless did not. During the regular season, the first of Mook’s $64M extension, he proved that decision to be the right one.
During the season, Marcus Morris became just the 18th player in NBA history to shoot at least 47% from deep. Much of this could be attributed to the defensive attention that Kawhi Leonard drew, leaving Marcus Morris wide open to cash in. During the regular season, that is exactly what he did; however, that has not been the case in this series.
Marcus Morris is currently shooting just 1/14 from deep against the Jazz, and his inability to make shots has allowed Utah to be more aggressive on their Kawhi double teams. While Kawhi needs to be more aggressive, Marcus Morris needs to make this an easier possibility by disallowing Utah to double Kawhi so freely.
As previously stated, the Clippers have been here before. In fact, the argument can be made that they have already overcome a greater deficit than they one they now face. With games 3 and 4 coming at home, rather than on the road the way they did in round 1, the Clippers have an opportunity to tie this series by simply defending their home floor. Saturday’s game is as close to a must win as a non-elimination game can get.
While there is reason for optimism due to the Clippers’ proven ability to overcome adversity, there is also a reason 0-2 comebacks are as rare as they are. They usually indicate one team is either better than the other, one team is out-strategizing the other, or one team is simply outplaying the other. If you are the Clippers, you should head into Game 3 believing only the last two of those three possibilities.
So far, Utah has outplayed and out-strategized the Clippers. Are they the better team? That is a very real possibility. But until they notch 4 wins in the right-hand column, that is not a conversation worth listening to if you are the Clippers. There are real, tangible ways for the Clippers to tie this series up, and none of them require personnel outside of their locker room.
We will see if 0-2 lightning can strike twice.