And now we are down to four. The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz will square up in a battle of the bigs matchup after an exciting first-round series for both teams.
After dropping Game 1 to the young and promising Memphis Grizzlies, the Jazz bounced back to win four straight despite Donavan Mitchell’s slow but strong return to the floor. As for the Clippers, they managed to come back against the Dallas Mavericks in an easy Game 7 matchup at Staples Center. This is the teams’ fourth postseason matchup between each other. The Jazz look to remain undefeated against the Clippers after securing series wins in 1992, 1997, and 2017. Utah is also 2-1 against the Clippers this season.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Utah Jazz vs Los Angeles Clippers
How Both Teams Got Here
At first, it appeared that the Jazz would compete in a grueling six or seven-game matchup against the Grizzlies. Dillon Brooks finished with 31 points and seven rebounds, while Ja Morant scored 26. The young and gritty backcourt could not be stopped in Game 1. Utah’s shooting woes and no Mitchell didn’t help either. However, the Jazz flipped the switch when Mitchell returned to the floor and averaged 28.5 points in the first round. Utah won each game in double figures with the exception of Game 4, when they held on to win 120-113. The Jazz had a few days off due to the Clippers’ unique, seven-game battle against the Mavericks.
The Clippers arguably had one of the most memorable comebacks in NBA playoffs history: they came back down 2-0 and 3-2, with the road team winning each game until Game 7. On paper, Los Angeles has one of the most (if not, the most) dominant and deep rosters in the Western Conference entering the postseason. The Clippers shot 37.3 percent from behind the arc during the first round and are looking to build momentum after dominant performances from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Three Keys to Victory for Jazz
This is arguably their most crucial one: health. While this goes for every team, health is one of the biggest factors when competing in postseason action because your team is battling against the best players in the league within at least four games of action and little rest. This is advantageous because it makes it easier for teams to adjust to opponents’ game plans, but it is challenging when you have unhealthy players.
Mike Conley is a key player for Utah asides from Mitchell. The All-Star reinjured his hamstring in Game 5 against the Grizzlies last week and is slated to miss Game 1 against the Clippers. He was crucial to edge a young ninth-seeded Memphis. However, competition against a fourth-seed, experienced Clippers team is another story. Utah is third in offensive efficiency and Conley played a big part, averaging 16.5 points and six assists per game off 44.4 percent shooting from the field. His vet presence as the team’s floor general helps set up shooters in Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson. This brings into their next key: bench performance.
Clarkson won Sixth Man of the Year for a reason: his shooting and improved basketball I.Q. He will be crucial in a matchup against George, Terance Mann, and Reggie Jackson. Derrick Favors is a solid backup post who can fill in for Rudy Gobert. This is why this matchup will likely be a post-heavy battle. If the Jazz’s bench steps up, especially with Conley hurt, they will be in good shape.
While the Jazz are also known for their three-point shooting (fourth in the league), they will have to be strategic on defense and down in the post with Gobert as the anchor on both sides. Being efficient from behind the arc is also essential with Serge Ibaka doubtful for Games 1 and 2. Unlike Dallas, Utah has the stats to freeze the Clippers on both sides.
Three Keys to Victory for Clippers
The Clippers may have the better talent on paper, but they are also a unique bunch. Very few people expected them to defeat the Mavericks in seven games, but now they’re in the second round. Unlike the Jazz, the Clippers barely got any rest, which could hurt them in the beginning. This is why discipline is a big key to the Clippers. They are a little banged up and fatigue can affect you, which is why they have also play smart. With a bench that consists of Rajon Rondo, Mann, Jackson, and Marcus Morris, this could give them the edge over the Jazz. The key? George and Leonard have to be consistent.
Leonard dominated in the second half of the first round despite a slow start, but with the Jazz’s deep bench, it’s crucial to get him going. This also includes George, who was disappointing in the first round. Yes, he made up his lack of scoring with rebounds and assists but when you’re going up against the No. 1 seed, you need some offense from your star players. Ty Lue enjoys the small ball route, which benefits both players, but even helps the Jazz with Gobert on the floor. This is when frontcourt defense becomes crucial.
Morris and Nicolas Batum will each share the duty of defending Gobert with Ivica Zubac. Zubac struggles in defending the pick-and-roll, which is an area Mitchell and Gobert also excel in. This means Batum and Morris will have to step up. An interesting thing to keep an eye on is what Lue’s game plan will be: small ball or adjusting to Utah’s bigs with DeMarcus Cousins and Zubac. Ibaka’s health plays a factor as well due to his ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting, an area the Clippers thrive in.
The Clippers lead the league in three-point shooting at 41.1 percent during the regular season. This pushed them to Game 6 and 7 victories despite a slight dip in their percentage. Look for Luke Kennard to get more minutes, along with Jackson and Mann. The Jazz also has solid shooters in Ingles and Bojan Bogdanović, but the Clippers can afford to gamble (not rely on) on their three-ball.
Bench production is what will be the key for both teams besides health. Utah has the better bench on paper, but Los Angeles is more experienced. Jackson and Rondo will be crucial anchors. While Jackson was inserted into the lineup later in the Mavs’ series, he is still a key piece. What gives Utah an edge is a fact that they have two Sixth Man of the Year nominees and a solid backup center/power forward. Jackson was the Clippers’ unsung hero in Game 7. Can he repeat his performance against a strong Utah team that is consistent on both sides of the floor? Very likely, but these benches will be exciting to watch regardless.
Final Prediction: Clippers Over Jazz in Seven
The Clippers will likely go through another grueling seven-game matchup with a No. 1 seeded team full of firepower. While I do not see the road team winning each game leading into Game 7 in this series, I believe this will be a tough one for both teams. In simple terms, these are two of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA. Mitchell will continue his star play and Gobert will excel on the boards and defense. However, the Clippers have too much depth on their team for Utah to handle. Los Angeles will advance to the Western Conference Finals in seven games.
Embed from Getty Images