The Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz had different paths in the first round. Los Angeles played in a grueling, seven-game series with the Dallas Mavericks. Utah disposed of the Memphis Grizzlies in only five games. The Clippers are trying to make their first Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are looking to make up for their second-round letdown to the Denver Nuggets in 2019. They are in a great position to do so against the Utah Jazz. The Jazz had the best record during the regular season but do not have a second star next to Donovan Mitchell. The Clippers may be a better team than Utah even as a lower seed so this will be an interesting series.
Against his wishes, Mitchell missed Game 1 against the Grizzlies and the Jazz lost. Once he returned in Game 2, the Jazz won four consecutive games and sent the Grizzlies packing. Mitchell scored almost 30 points per game and Mike Conley played excellently. The Jazz had six players with double-digit scoring averages for the series. Rudy Gobert dominated on the glass, Conley was the perfect floor general and Bogdan Bogdanović shot over 40 percent from three. Things will be much tougher against the Clippers, especially with Conley suffering a mild hamstring strain in Game 5. With Conley’s status in question, the role players will have to step up even more in this series.
Los Angeles Clippers: +135
Utah Jazz: -161
The Clippers are the underdogs here but you could make the case that they are the better team. They have a couple of advantages in this series. Leonard is a top 5 player in the NBA and one of the best closers in the game. He is the best player in this series on both ends of the floor. Another advantage the Clippers have is their defense. With Leonard and George, the Clippers have two defenders who can help neutralize Mitchell. Patrick Beverley is another high-level defender who could spend some time defending Mitchell. The Jazz on the other hand lack perimeter defenders. Leonard and George will not have to worry about anybody playing tight defense on them this series. Even at +135, the Clippers seem like a safe bet here.
The Jazz has one of the deepest team’s in the NBA. Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are both finalists for the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award. The Clippers bench is not as talented as Utah’s. This gives them a huge advantage. In the first round, Los Angeles struggled at times when Leonard and George left the court. With the Jazz’s ability to shoot the three, they can go on a big run at any time. Gobert has the potential to tilt the series in the Jazz favor. Clippers coach Ty Lue likes to play small ball so this is a series that Gobert can shine in. The Jazz is the higher-seeded team with homecourt advantage. With Mitchell playing like a superstar, the Jazz is a good, but risky bet here.
Ivica Zubac could not defend the pick and roll against the Mavericks so the Clippers were forced to make a change. Los Angeles’ went with the small-ball approach and replaced Zubac with Nicolas Batum in the starting lineup. This may seem like a better series due to Gobert but Mitchell is a threat in the pick and roll too. The Clippers should again go with their small-ball lineup. Batum and Morris in the frontcourt along with Leonard, Reggie Jackson, and George give the Clippers five players who can all stretch the floor. Gobert can take a game over defensively and he dominates the boards. Utilizing Batum and Morris as bigs force Gobert to defend on the perimeter. Leonard and George will have clearer driving lanes with Gobert out of the paint.
If the Clippers elect to go small, Gobert must take advantage. Batum and Morris are both 4-5 inches shorter than Gobert so he will have more opportunities to score. If Gobert can hurt the Clippers on offense then that could force Zubac onto the court which will work heavily in the Jazz’ favor. Gobert averaged a playoff career-high 17.4 points per game against the Grizzlies and that number should increase this series. Rebounding will be key for the Jazz. Gobert averaged 13 rebounds per game against the Grizzlies, that number should rise in this series. The Clippers are not a good rebounding team; out of the 16 teams in the first round, the Clippers ranked 12th in rebounding. Creating second chance opportunities for the Jazz and eliminating second chance opportunities for the Clippers is how Gobert can control this series.
George impacted the game in all facets against the Mavericks. He averaged 23.6 points, 9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game. He was the primary defender on Luka Dončić for the majority of the series. Even when he was off on offense, he found ways to make plays. In this series, George will have to be more consistent as a scorer and shooter. He shot 30.6. from three in round one, that must improve in round two. Utah has shooters everywhere and can score points in a hurry. George’s scoring will be important this series. On the defensive end, George will defend both Mitchell and Bogdanović. Bogdanović is the Jazz’s third-leading scorer in the playoffs, eliminating him from the game would put even more pressure on Mitchell.
Bogdanović is not the same player that George is but he will have to rival his scoring numbers. He averaged 18.4 points versus the Grizzlies and shot 43 percent from three but the Jazz needs more from him versus Los Angeles. The Clippers have great individual defenders who can make things tough. Utah needs a potent offensive attack with everyone contributing. Mike Conley’s hamstring injury could linger for the entire series which will result in Bogdanović having a larger role on offense. Bogdanović will have to find ways around the defense of George and Leonard. Staying aggressive against the Clippers’ perimeter defenders is a must. Bogdanović is a formidable shot creator but his off-ball movement is what will open things up for him in this series.
Leonard’s defensive prowess was on full display against the Mavericks. After watching Dončić scorch the Clippers in the first five games of the series, Leonard became his primary defender for the remainder of the series. This shifted the series in the Clippers’ favor and Leonard showed why he is the best two-way player in the game. Coach Ty Lue does not always place Leonard on the opposing team’s best player because they rely on him offensively. Mitchell is one of the NBA’s best scorers and is capable of having big scoring nights. It’s a different matchup for Leonard because Mitchell is a smaller, explosive guard. Since the Jazz’ offense rests on Mitchell’s shoulder, it would be smart for the Clippers to have Leonard defending him early and often.
This series will come down to the matchup of two superstars in Mitchell and Leonard. Leonard is a proven champion and everyone knows what he is capable of. Mitchell has to match the scoring input of Leonard for the Jazz to prevail. The Jazz is a great three-point shooting team with multiple shot creators but Mitchell is what makes the offense go. He is in attack mode at all times, constantly putting pressure on the defense. Mitchell is a strong guard who finishes well through contact. He will be going up against two of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders this series so he will have his work cut out for him. George and Leonard will try to use their length and physicality to get him off of his game. With Conley dealing with a hamstring injury, the Jazz cannot afford for Mitchell to struggle.
Los Angeles Clippers X-Factor: Reggie Jackson
Jackson was the unsung hero for the Clippers in the first round. He was inserted into the starting lineup after the Clippers fell behind 0-2 in the series. That resulted in the Clippers winning four out of the next five games. Jackson flourished as the third option on offense and his Game 6 performance helped save the Clippers season. He scored 14 points in the first quarter of that game and set the tone for the Clippers. In Game 7, Jackson knocked down several big shots in the fourth quarter that sealed the Mavericks’ fate. These are the kind of performances that will be needed against the Jazz. George and Leonard will not be able to do it alone so Jackson will be pivotal in this series.
Utah Jazz X-Factor: Mike Conley
Conley is listed as day-to-day and is questionable for Game 1. Before the Game 5 injury, Conley played stellar during the series. He averaged 17.4 points and 8.6 assists per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 56 percent from three. That kind of shooting efficiency will be needed in this series. When Conley is healthy the Jazz is truly a threat. His defense and playmaking ability makes the Jazz a complete team. He creates open looks for everyone and takes the pressure off of Mitchell in the backcourt. A high IQ player who always makes the right play. Conley plays well down the stretch of games, the Jazz will miss his fourth-quarter savvy if he’s forced to miss any games.
Series Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers 4, Utah Jazz 3
These are two of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA. The Clippers led the NBA in three-point percentage and the Jazz led the NBA in three-point field goals made. No lead will be safe in this series with that kind of perimeter shooting. This will be a great series. Mitchell will continue his superstar ascension but the Clippers will prove to be too much as a team. Leonard and George will get Mitchell off of his game and that will result in the Jazz dropping one of their home games. This will be a high-scoring series but the Clippers’ ability to make timely stops will be the difference.
Follow Darius Walker on Twitter @BullWalker1
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