The transformation of the Los Angeles Clippers over the course of their four games in the Western Conference Semifinals so far has been night and day.
After a couple of close losses in Utah, the Clippers have rallied back from a 2-0 hole thanks to dominant wins over the top-seeded Jazz. Los Angeles made sure to erase any doubts with their 118-104 Game 4 victory over Utah, which further proved that their 26-point Game 3 victory wasn’t a fluke.
The roles now appear to have reversed, as the Clippers are looking like a 1-seed, while the Jazz are now the one scrambling for answers as the series shifts back to Salt Lake City.
While Kawhi Leonard has been lights-out on offense in the past two games, it is perhaps Paul George’s adjustments and that of head coach Tyronn Lue that have helped Los Angeles the most.
The seven-time All-Star has gotten a lot of flak for his offensive woes and has responded by embracing the point guard role that has opened up things for him offensively. In this series, he is averaging 4.25 assists, and it has reaped benefits for him as his scoring and efficiency have gone up.
The Clippers have had no problems in deploying lineups with non-traditional point guards as the ones on their roster can at times be unplayable (Patrick Beverley) or are more suited for a scoring role (Reggie Jackson). Lue has made the necessary adjustments by giving more time to Nicolas Batum over Ivica Zubac to give Los Angeles a smaller but more effective lineup. Batum and at times Leonard have been able to take on playmaking duties and it has allowed them to have a multi-dimensional point of attack.
Though they aren’t the type to outrun their opponents, the Clippers have been able to utilize their smaller lineup with multiple playmakers to get Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert out of his element. With no traditional big man on the floor, Gobert is forced to pick on a smaller yet more agile Clipper that would force him to extend his coverage beyond the paint and in turn create openings for easy baskets or kickout passes for 3-pointers.
The small-ball lineup has also been helpful on the defensive end, as the trio of Batum, George, and Leonard has not only been effective in setting up the offense, but has also clogged the passing and driving lanes. Batum and Leonard each average nearly two steals a game in the conference semifinals, with the former also pushing his average up with three first half steals in Game 4. After a few forgettable seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, it’s safe to say that Batum’s increased role has had a huge impact on the team and resurrected his career.
The Jazz themselves employ multiple playmakers in Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and even Jordan Clarkson. Conley’s absence due to a right hamstring strain, however, has started to take its toll on the team. Ingles has been thrust to the starting lineup, but his assist numbers have gone down in the last two games and his overall production has left the Utah bench to rely on Clarkson. The team has been heavily reliant on his production as he scored all the bench points for Utah in Game 2 and had eight (on 12 shots) of the team’s 11 bench points in Game 4.
Where they will find answers for the rest of the series remains to be the biggest question as the potentially pivotal Game 5 is two days away. Gobert may be an elite defensive talent, but it is concerning when one of your cornerstones can be taken out of the game impact-wise in certain stretches.
Mitchell will always find ways to score, but his efficiency or lack thereof could be contagious for the rest of the Jazz. Shots missed are wasted chances and for a deliberate team like the Clippers, those opportunities don’t come as easy.
With the way momentum has shifted in this series, the outcome remains up in the air. The Los Angeles Clippers made some crucial changes that easily erased an early series deficit that nearly had them written off again. Now, the ball is on the Utah Jazz’s court, who need maybe more than a Mike Conley return to stop this impending Clipper juggernaut.