The Clippers finally pushed past the Dallas Mavericks in a competitive and nerve-wracking seven game series. Their reward? A date in the second round with the Utah Jazz, the number one seed in the Western Conference (and the entire NBA), who have four additional days of rest after polishing off the Grizzlies in five games last Wednesday. There’s no rest for the weary, with the series starting Tuesday night, just two days after the Clippers’ victory over the Mavs. With the NBA in a rush, we will be too, so without further ado: a full preview of the Clippers’ series against the Jazz.
The Jazz were an absolute juggernaut this season, finishing the abbreviated campaign with a 52-20 record, tops in the NBA. Nor was that record any kind of fluke – top five finishes in defensive and offensive net rating had the Jazz with a 9.0 Net Rating, the best in the entire NBA. While they slowed somewhat over the second half of the season after a torrid start, their numbers remained very good, and they present as a team that doesn’t possess many real weaknesses. They’re a veteran group with a great deal of playoff experience, the roster has largely been together for years, providing a ton of continuity, and they have an excellent coach in Quin Snyder.
On defense, the Jazz center (hah) around Rudy Gobert, their backline option who has keyed a top five defense for years in Salt Lake City. Gobert is well on his way to winning a third Defensive Player of the Year Award, and is deserving of all the accolades he’s received. He’s not as versatile as a Draymond Green or Ben Simmons, but he’s maybe the best “drop” scheme defender ever, and in an NBA where drop coverage is prominent, that makes him a dominant force. Gobert is not alone, however. Mike Conley has long been one of the better point guard defenders in the NBA, and remains a plus on that end despite his size and age. Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale are very competent defensive players as well, while Derrick Favors can at least kind of approximate Gobert’s rim protection off the bench. The weak spots are Bojan Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell, and Jordan Clarkson, but even Clarkson isn’t truly a bottom-tier guy on that end.
On offense, the Jazz actually play somewhat similarly to the Clippers in that they are a deadly three-point shooting team that relies heavily on the outside shot. If anything, the Jazz are even more reliant on the three-ball – they took 41.4 shots from deep per game out of 86.4 total shots (47.9%) compared to the Clippers’ 36 threes out of 80 shots (45%). Another item to note there is how many more shots the Jazz took than the Clippers. This is because they were an average ranked team in pace compared to the Clippers’ third slowest mark, and also had the fifth-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the NBA. These offensive rebounds were a huge part of the Jazz offense, as they not only led to putbacks, but also lots of open threes for the Jazz’s shooters.
In short, the Jazz are a formidable opponent that is well-rested, battle-hardened, and have many strengths. This preview won’t be all doom and gloom regarding the Jazz however, as there are numerous important points for the Clippers as well in this series – weaknesses to eliminate, and strengths to take advantage of.
The Point Guard Rotation: The shakiest part of the Clippers’ roster right now is at point guard. The center position is a bit shaky as well, as Ivica Zubac didn’t play much in the latter part of the Mavs series, but that was an extremely tough matchup for him, and Serge Ibaka should hopefully be back soon. At point guard, the Clippers relied heavily on Reggie Jackson the last few games, turning away from a struggling Rajon Rondo and removing Pat Beverley entirely in favor of Terance Mann and even Luke Kennard. However, for as well as Reggie has played, it’s still hard to believe him as a true 30+ minute per game guy deep into the playoffs. Maybe that’s just who he is, and if so, that’s incredible. If not, the Clippers have to hope “Playoff Rondo” returns after vanishing in Games 5-7. Mann is excellent, but he’s played his best more as a wing off the ball, and Luke is both an off-ball guy and only received limited minutes against the Mavs. Beverley seems out of the rotation entirely. Will Lue return to Pat at all, the presumptive starting point guard not only at the start of the season, but at the start of the first round a couple weeks ago? Or is he just out of it until other guys ahead of him slip? Can the Clippers really play Luke Kennard consistently? There are many questions, and while there are some answers, they’re shakier than one might like heading against a team as good as the Jazz.
Continuing Small Ball: As mentioned above in the preview, and throughout our writing and pods in the Mavs’ series, the Clippers turned to small-ball extensively, and could well pursue such a strategy against the Jazz as well. After all, if they go small with four or five shooters and no true big man, they should be able to draw Rudy Gobert out of the paint, nullifying his strength as a rim protector and helpside defender. However, this is a somewhat scarier proposition than against the Jazz. Gobert is not a guy who will dominate in the post, but he’s a forceful offensive rebounder and an excellent roll man, and nobody on the Clippers’ smaller unit can probably consistently keep him off the glass. Giving up some offensive rebounds might be worth it for the advantage offensively, but the Clippers will probably get punished more for that than against the Mavs. Also, the Jazz have more ball-handlers and creators than the Mavs, which means increased penetration where having a true rim protector like Zu or Serge would be handy. If Serge is healthy, he could offer a middle ground with some spacing as well as rebounding and paint defense, but it remains to be seen if he will be ready for action. Also, the Jazz virtually ignored him as a shooter, so maybe his spacing is more theoretical than actual.
Slowing Donovan Mitchell: The Jazz are a devastating offensive team with many weapons, but the spearhead to their attack is Donovan Mitchell. He averaged 26.4 points per game in the regular season (eight more than their next guy, Clarkson), and absolutely eviscerated the Grizzlies in the first round. He’s not nearly the passer or playmaker that Luka is, but he’s an excellent scorer who can be extremely difficult to slow down when hot. However, the differences between them generally play to the Clippers’ advantage. Mitchell’s smaller stature means the Clippers can throw multiple guys at him who are much bigger, punishing him with strength and forcing him to shoot over length. His lesser playmaking also means the Clippers don’t have to be quite as worried with him beating them as a passer. The Jazz do have other playmakers, so forcing other guys into that role won’t be as effective as it was against the Mavs, who had no other true creators besides Luka, but the Clippers can shade a bit more off guys knowing that Mitchell won’t be quite as on-target as consistently as Luka (and simply can’t make some of those reads). If Mitchell isn’t scoring 30 points consistently (at least on decent efficiency), the Clippers should be in pretty good shape.
Playing Mismatches Offensively: The Jazz have a strong overall defense, but they do start two smaller guards in Conley and Mitchell. Neither is a complete pushover defensively (as mentioned, Conley is still quite solid in particular), but they’re both very undersized against Paul George or Kawhi Leonard. Bojan Bogdanovic is bigger, but he doesn’t have the strength to match Kawhi and is not quick enough for George. The Jazz will probably put O’Neale on Kawhi, but could go multiple directions in the rest of their matchups. They could try to put Conley or Mitchell on PG and stick the somewhat bigger Bogdanovic on Marcus Morris, or they could place one of their guards on Morris and bait the Clippers into posting him up. Morris can absolutely score over those guys, but the Clippers’ offense won’t reach peak effectiveness running a lot of Morris post ups, so it’s something that the Jazz will definitely live with. Instead of that, the Clippers should be trying to get Gobert out of the paint to open up drives to the rim, and getting those guards onto PG and Kawhi, who are more capable of punishing the mismatches as both scorers and playmakers.
Well, that about does it for this series preview of the Clippers’ matchup against the Jazz. Be sure to check out the Jazz blog, SLC Dunk, for their thoughts on the series. Let me know what you think other subplots might be in the comments below!