The Utah Jazz will open their 2020-21 Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night. Here’s everything you need to know, from the schedule to the storylines, from players to watch to the strengths and weaknesses of both teams.
Donovan Mitchell emerging as a superstar; Clippers win or bust
- The Jazz’s All-Star guard has grown and become more efficient with each season, with each playoff series, with each game. Mitchell finished with an incredibly efficient 30 points and 10 assists in the series-winning Game 5 rout of the Memphis Grizzlies, but can he reach an even higher level as the competition level increases through the postseason? All eyes will be on Mitchell, wondering what else he can do to elevate himself and his teammates. This series against the Clippers, should the Jazz prevail, could end up being a defining moment for Mitchell’s career, catapulting him from star to superstar.
- The Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs in the Orlando bubble, only to then face the Denver Nuggets. Just as the Jazz did in the first round that same year, the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets squad. This year the Clippers prevailed against the Mavericks again and will be looking to avoid once again flaming out in the second round. The Clippers were banking on having one of the best and most lethal teams in the league when they signed Kawhi Leonard and traded away a huge haul of future assets for Paul George, but if the Clippers can’t get past the second round for a second consecutive year, Leonard could end up not exercising his player option for next season and walking away from Los Angeles, leaving the team with few options for roster reconstruction.
Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard, Royce O’Neale
• The health of Mike Conley is going to be a huge factor in this series. If he can play and play effectively, despite dealing with a strained hamstring, the Jazz will have a much better shot. If he’s not able to play or is hampered by the injury, the Jazz will need to be even better to pick up the slack.
- It is no secret that Leonard is one of the best two-way players in the NBA. He is skilled and able to play anywhere on the court and is not often deterred by double- or triple-teams, much less a single defender. He has the ability to go off for 40 or more points on any given night and still be the main facilitator on his team.
- The Jazz’s best perimeter defender, Royce O’Neale, is going to be tasked with guarding Leonard for the majority of the series, and while switches will make containing Leonard a team effort, O’Neale’s ability to keep Leonard in front of him and contest shots while not fouling is going to huge for the Jazz.
Unselfish basketball, interior defense, 3-point shooting
- The Clippers’ lengthy and athletic switching defense is tough to beat, but the one thing that works best against it is ball movement and quick decisions. When the Jazz are at their best they are moving the ball, making quick reads, driving, kicking and passing out to open shooters. The Jazz’s unselfish play and ability to score without relying on isolation plays will be one of their greatest strengths against the Clippers.
- When the Clippers play a more traditional five-man lineup, the Jazz have the clear advantage. Rudy Gobert’s interior defense is better than anything the Clippers’ front court can provide and offensively Gobert is better than Ivica Zubac. Even if Serge Ibaka is able to play (he’s been out with back spasms) the Mitchell or Conley pick-and-roll with Gobert should be able to run without a hitch against the Clippers.
- The Jazz and Clippers are the two best 3-point shooting teams in the league. The Clippers have the better 3-point shooting percentage, while the Jazz hit a higher volume of shots. When the Jazz are spacing the floor and getting good looks they are almost unbeatable.
Slow starts, letting go of leads, streaky bench play
- With Game 5 the exception in the Grizzlies series, the Jazz have had trouble getting hot early and finding a consistent rhythm at the beginning of games. It’s the Game 5 level of out-of-the-gate intensity that the Jazz are going to need if they want to beat the Clippers. You can get away with coming from behind or holding off a team like Memphis, but you can’t let the Clippers get hot and gain confidence in the first quarter or you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle throughout the game.
- Along those same lines, the Jazz have a tendency to let their foot off the gas when they get a big lead. Through the first round we didn’t see the Jazz play a complete game. Now is the time for the Jazz to start putting together 48 minutes of solid basketball. No one is expecting them to be perfect — perfect basketball doesn’t exist. But they need to stay engaged and competitive for the entirety of the game and not have long stretches where they fall apart on defense.
- Jordan Clarkson started to get his shot back in Game 5 against the Grizzlies but he struggled up to that point. Joe Ingles was nearly invisible in the Memphis series. The Jazz need to be able to have strong, consistent bench play in the second round. If they are going to lose the non-Kawhi or non-Paul George minutes, the Jazz won’t be able to win this series. The Jazz’s role players can’t disappear against the Clippers.
Switchable defense, small-ball lineup, 3-point shooting
- Leonard and George are not only great offensive players but they are one of the best defensive backcourt tandems in the league, and with Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley and Marcus Morris, as well as others that can switch and guard multiple positions, it makes the Clippers’ defense a tough one to penetrate.
- There is going to be a lot made of the fact that the Clippers can and will play small-ball and go five-out against the Jazz. Gobert will not only need to dominate the paint, but he’ll have to play well in space and be able to use his quickness to close out. How well the Clippers execute with their small lineup and how the Jazz react to that lineup could end up dictating this series.
- As stated, the Jazz and Clippers are the two best 3-point shooting teams in the league. The Clippers have 11 players on their roster who shot better than 39% from 3-point range this season. Their shooting is deep and they hit at a high clip. Limiting the number of open looks they get is going to be a key for the Jazz.
Options not depth, drop in efficiency, viable center
- The Clippers are often praised for their depth, and they do have a lot of options when it comes to their bench players, but so many of them can be rendered ineffective depending on matchups that it makes it difficult for them to commit to a regular rotation. Many would look at the prospect of having so many options as a good problem, but when it comes to playoff basketball, continuity is important.
- While the Clippers had one of the most efficient shooting squads through the regular season, things got pretty streaky for them through the first round. A number of their key players saw huge drops in efficiency against the Mavericks. When they go up against a better defensive team in the Jazz, it might be even harder for them to get back to their sharp shooting ways.
- Just as Gobert is a strength for the Jazz, not having a comparable center is a problem for the Clippers — a 7-foot-2, rim-running, shot-blocking problem. The Clippers just don’t have someone on their roster that can go toe-to-toe with Gobert in the paint.
The Clippers are far and away a better team than the Memphis Grizzlies, but the Jazz are capable of playing at a much higher level than they did through the first series, which they won in five games.
This series is not going to be easy, but if the Jazz can take care of business at home, and own things on the defensive end, they could wear the Clippers down and frustrate them into bad shot selection. The Jazz have what it takes to win this series and I think that they will.
Jazz in 6.