It’s not uncommon for NBA playoff matchups to become more complex as the postseason wages on. After facing single-star teams in the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks, the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers, both loaded squads in their own respects, will square off against one another with a spot in the Western Conference Finals on the line.
The Jazz last made it to the Western Conference Finals back in 1998, when Karl Malone and John Stockton lorded over the West, but they could not overcome Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Clippers have yet to make it to the conference finals in their 51 NBA seasons.
Utah are well-rested and are slowly getting back to form thanks to the return of Donovan Mitchell, who looks to be returning to pre-injury form after averaging 28.5 points on .450 percent shooting, 5.8 assists, and 1.3 steals in four games (all wins) against the Grizzlies.
Mitchell, however, has had help, as he has five other teammates averaging double figures in the postseason and as of this writing, the Jazz are one of the highest scoring teams in the playoffs with their 123.4 points through five games.
The team has no problems getting buckets, so the key for them in this series would be to contain Kawhi Leonard and the rest of the Clippers. In the first round, the game plan was much easier as the Memphis offense ran through the sensational Ja Morant. Dillion Brooks and Jonas Valaciunas were also major contributors for the Grizzlies, but Morant’s activity on the court diverted much of the attention to him and created openings for them.
Against Los Angeles, Leonard will be the natural focus, but Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and even Rajon Rondo (who struggled in the first round against Dallas) can make plays for themselves and others. Making the Clippers work for every shot and limiting extra possessions will likely be the first order of business.
Utah head coach Quin Snyder must also ensure that center Rudy Gobert remains a constant presence in this series. Although the Clippers might opt to start Ivica Zubac again for this series, their smaller starting lineup during the latter games against Dallas helped them clinch the series. On Gobert’s part, avoiding fouls will be crucial as his shot-altering capabilities will give Los Angeles, especially the likes of Leonard and George, a cause for pause.
Mike Conley, a big part of Utah’s success, isn’t 100% thanks to a hamstring strain, which is certainly a worry for Snyder. If he doesn’t get healthy during the series, or even worse aggravates his injury by coming back too quickly, things will become a fair bit more difficult for the Jazz.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles survived Luka Doncic and were rewarded with a matchup against the overall top seed in the playoffs. In a series marked by wins by road teams, the Clippers took care of business in Game 7 at home by going on a 24-9 run in the third quarter that the Mavericks could not overcome.
The addition of Nicolas Batum this season and the emergence of both Marcus Morris Sr. (7 threes in Game 7) and Terrence Mann (13 points in Game 7) helped give the Clippers a more balanced attack. Batum was especially helpful as his 11 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block in the close out game summed up his role as the third defender that helped Leonard and George contain Doncic and whichever Maverick caught fire in the series.
Their contributions on the defensive end will be especially helpful as the Jazz have multiple playmakers like Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles, both of whom can initiate offense as compared to the Mavericks, who run their sets through Doncic.
Leonard has been an aggressive and consistent presence for the Clippers, but he will need more help when facing the deeper and more dynamic Utah squad. His 31.6 points per game in the last five contests helped Los Angeles go 4-1 the rest of the series but the Jazz will have more capable defenders to throw at him.
George has been working toward losing his “Pandemic P” label, and he must continue improving to give Leonard more breathing room. His 10 assists in Game 7 are a welcome sign, but he will have to improve on his 5/15 shooting if he will take the pressure off Leonard.
Attacking Gobert on defense will actually be crucial for them as putting the big man in foul trouble will open things inside and it will also help them capitalize on their league-leading .839 free throw shooting.
The stakes in the postseason naturally pale in comparison to the regular season, but there remains context with the regular season results. Utah won the first two games in their regular season series with Los Angeles, but the Clippers won the final matchup 106-100 with a complete lineup. Lou Williams is the only player from that game who isn’t there anymore and his replacement in Rondo will likely not be the one to replace William’s contributions.
Since their 3-1 debacle against the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, the Clippers have been trying to shed the choker label that has hounded them since then. Head coach Tyronn Lue has made adjustments that his predecessor Doc Rivers failed to utilize and his record as someone who has never been fazed by elimination games (thanks in part to LeBron James) is evident.
Navigating the complexities and uncertainties of an NBA postseason are what defines champions. How the Jazz and the Clippers respond to each other’s strengths and weaknesses will obviously be crucial, but having multiple playmakers and options on both sides will make this easier said than done. It also turns the series into an interesting chess match between coaches.