Don’t let the seedings fool you; the Western Conference Semifinal between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers is a bonafide heavyweight matchup.
Both teams went shot-for-shot and run-for-run in what was one of the more closely-fought games in this postseason. In the end, Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz held on for a 112-109 win to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
45 went for 45 points through six 3-pointers and a bevy of nifty moves to the basket, and Utah needed every single point to avoid another first-game upset. Big-time shots from Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles also proved to be helpful in the victory.
Beyond the numbers however, it was the tone of the Jazz in the second half that allowed them to claw back from a double-digit halftime deficit. From the onset, it seemed as if the absence of Mike Conley would prove to be a difficult one to overcome as their early 10-2 lead disappeared by the end of the first quarter.
Although Ingles did his best to sub for Conley with his six first half assists, Utah sorely missed the pick-and-roll game that would have gotten Rudy Gobert going offensively and opened up more opportunities for the Jazz’s shooters.
Mitchell took things into his own hands and his teammates followed his lead. The Jazz’s aggression on offense helped them get into the bonus early and put several Clippers players into foul trouble. The momentum carried over to their defense and it was this crucial stop that punctuated Utah’s Game 1 victory.
Los Angeles actually shot better from behind the 3-point line, but the Jazz were able to utilize their threes to open up the floor and allow Mitchell to slice through the defense for high-percentage shots. It also opened things up for Gobert in the second half, who also drew fouls and made a good account for himself by missing only three of his nine free throw attempts. Getting the two-time Defensive Player of the Year involved offensively would also be helpful as some of his errors and fouls came off moments when he would catch the ball at awkward positions. With more game reps together, things should only get better.
Despite the loss, Game 1 wasn’t a complete waste for the Clippers. Not only did they manage to rattle the Jazz in the first half, but they also came away from this game with some tidbits they can use to try to steal Game 2 and home court advantage for the series.
With Los Angeles staring at an early 10-2 deficit in the first quarter, head coach Tyronn Lue made some decisions that changed the complexion of the game. Luke Kennard, who was on and off during the regular season, subbed in early for Kawhi Leonard and proceeded to knock down three 3-pointers during the pivotal run. He finished the game with 18 points on four 3-pointers and only two misses, a welcome development that could be built on especially if they can hide him on defense when Mitchell is on the court.
Another one was DeMarcus Cousins, who was inserted in the second quarter after having not seen the court in the first round. His impact was immediate as he made a stop on Gobert and scored on the other end and drew a foul. The four-time all-star finished with six points and played only four minutes, but at this point, he is effective in spurts and could help put Gobert in foul trouble and punish Derrick Favors on the low block or in the perimeter.
Lue also had to abandon the small-ball lineup he utilized in the series against the Dallas Mavericks and went to Ivica Zubac early in the first quarter. The former Laker finished with 11 points, six rebounds, three assists, and three blocks in 20 minutes and could be poised for more minutes.
Taking care of the ball was never an issue for the Clippers as their first turnover was a shot clock violation with 8:33 left in the first half. What they’ll need to build on would be a more concerted effort on team defense.
Kennard and Zubac were exposed when matched up against Mitchell and at times Clarkson. Devoting a more team-oriented scheme to deny or at least force both players into questionable decisions and ill-advised shots would temper the offensive firepower that was crucial in getting Utah back in the game.
Slowing down Mitchell could also entail making him work more on defense. He’s not an elite-two way player nor is he an albatross on defense, but he too can get excited at times by biting on fakes and gambling on the defensive end.
Leonard will definitely have a bounceback game, but all eyes are on Paul George, who has been more Pandemic P than Playoff P. His 20 points and 10 rebounds would’ve been less hollow if he made some of those 13 missed shot attempts and would have quelled the momentum gained by Utah.
The Los Angeles Clippers aren’t fazed with playing on the road as this is just their first loss in four road games so far this postseason. However, the Utah Jazz are not Dallas, as their offense doesn’t necessarily live and die by Mitchell, who looks like he has recovered from an ankle injury he suffered late in the regular season.
Game 1 was fun, and all indications are this will be a classic series.