Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard headline a 7-game series between two of the Western Conference’s best teams. (via clippers.com)
Five years ago, the Jazz upset a star-studded Clippers team in a seven-game thriller. It featured Rudy Gobert’s first playoff experience, a 40-point game from Gordon Hayward, and an epic Joe Johnson game-winner. Things have changed since then. Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, and Gobert are the only returning players. The Clippers roster is completely different — in fact that series was the death knell of the Lob City era. Now the Jazz enter the matchup as the higher seed, but will still be seen by many as an underdog as they face a differently composed, but still star-studded Clippers team.
Last year, both the Jazz and Clippers surrendered 3–1 leads to the Nuggets last in heartbreaking fashion. This year, both lost their respective first playoff games at home (Clippers lost the first two), but overcame to win their first series. Both enter the post-season with huge expectations and a viable path to their first championship in franchise history.
In March we looked at what we’ve learned so far about a potential Jazz-Clippers matchup. The wait is over. The Clippers and Jazz face each other in the Conference Semi-Finals. Let’s dig deeper into some key factors.
Key: Mike Conley’s Health
We’ll start by getting the obvious out of the way: the Jazz need Mike Conley Jr., and his availability is very much in question. How much he plays may be the biggest factor in the series.
Key: Rudy Gobert’s Dominance
This may be the most important playoff series in Gobert’s career. The stage is set. Despite the narrative that he underperforms in the playoffs, Rudy has put together a string of very good series. In the first round he averaged 17.4 points, 13 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, and 78% effective field goal percentage. And that’s just in 32.4 minutes per game.
With Serge Ibaka ruled out of the series opener with back spasms, Gobert will face off against Ivica Zubac and, when the Clippers go small, Marcus Morris. This matchup could dictate the outcome of the series. Ty Lue tipped his hand in the third Jazz-Clipper game of the regular season, playing Morris at center for the last portion of the game. This move was successful, ultimately leading to a Los Angeles win. But Morris played exceptionally well in the fourth quarter, and Kawhi Leonard stole some key offensive rebounds. The Jazz were likely a bit surprised in the moment. But now they have plenty of time to prepare for that matchup. If Gobert can leverage his lob threat and dominate the offensive glass he can make the Clippers pay.
Zubac has looked sluggish and saw reduced minutes in the Mavericks series. Since he can’t spread the floor, Lue may not want to play him against Gobert. If he does play, look for the Jazz to hunt him on defense.
This is a big stage and the perfect opportunity for Gobert to shine and prove doubters wrong. He won’t be tasked with shutting down Kawhi or Paul George, but his defensive scheming will be key to shutting down the paint, allowing perimeter defenders to aggressively guard the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league.
Key: Rest Advantage
The Jazz will have a significant rest advantage, spending over a week without travel before the second round starts. That extra time is especially important for Mike Conley’s hamstring and Mitchell’s ankle.
The rest advantage goes beyond just games played. Mitchell and Conley averaged 30 minutes per game, and Gobert just a bit more. In contrast, Leonard and George averaged over 40 minutes each. Factor in the elevation difference, and we may see fatigue catch up with the Clippers.
While this Jazz team is in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row, the Clippers are considerably more experienced in the post-season.
Utah’s top-9 rotation has played 317 playoff games.
LA’s top-9 rotation has played 548 playoff games.
This experience was evident in the Clippers’ last series, where they overcame a 0-2 deficit and won every single road game. Kawhi is a two-time Finals MVP and one of the most reliable playoff performers in the league. Leonard and Rondo have both won championships with multiple teams. Ty Lue has coached a championship team.
But the Jazz are no slouch. And while they may not be as collectively experienced, they have the continuity edge. This is a tight-knit team, brought close by the bubble. As the number one seed, each opponent has brought their best, and they finished the season earning home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Key: A Battle of Stars
We’ve talked about Rudy Gobert elevating his game. He’s done so, but a truly dominating series from him would really tip the scales.
We’ve seen Kawhi elevate his game. He averaged over 32 points per game in the Dallas series. He’s the most proven player in the series by far. As we saw in game six, he has the ability to completely take over a game, where he scored 45 points on 18 of 25 shooting. Royce O’Neale just came off a fantastic series, and will have his hands full every minute.
Paul George’s playoff performance is much more checkered. Last season he was particularly poor. He’s been okay against Dallas, but scoring rate and efficiency are down from his regular season numbers. To his credit, this is his tenth post-season appearance, and he has had some monster series. But the track record is rocky. Which Paul George will we see against Utah?
And then there’s Donovan Mitchell. He’s also had some up-and-down performances, but he’s also only 24 years old. His series against the Nuggets was one of the best playoff performances of all time, averaging 36/5/5 on 70% true shooting efficiency. If you use adjust to per 36, Donovan is scoring at the same rate this season, while his assist rate has jumped from 26% to 33%. He looks to be in complete control, playing within the offense, but patiently picking apart the defense.
He’s going to have a much bigger challenge while guarded by Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Patrick Beverly played little against the Mavericks, but has had success guarding Mitchell in the past.
Mitchell’s ceiling has always been the biggest factor is Utah’s ceiling, and he can elevate his game at the same rate Kawhi can, the superstar advantage LA has claimed may be moot.
This is going to be a fantastic matchup. If you remove the regular season game where Kawhi and George didn’t play, the combined score of the other two games was 218–216. These are the number one and number two net rating teams.
Beyond the keys above, there are so many smaller questions. Can Joe Ingles return to form and get under George’s skin? Who does Lue give guard minutes to between Rondo, Beverly, Luke Kennard, and Reggie Jackson? Can Quin Snyder outmaneuver Ty Lue from a tactical standpoint? Will a full capacity Utah crowd shake the experienced Clippers? Can Utah’s plethora of ball handlers beat a heavily switching defense? Will Utah scheme allow or scheme against mid-range shots? Will Bojan be targeted on defense?
To be honest, this matchup may just come down to who shoots best, as simplistic has that sounds. These are two of the best shooting teams in the league, and as evenly matched as they are, it may boil down to a make-or-miss matchup.
Whatever the outcome, it’s likely to be a hard-fought and exciting series.
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