(Photo by Jacob Gonzalez / Los Angeles Clippers)
Through a tumultuous couple of weeks that saw confidence in the Clipper’s chances to advance beyond the first round plummet, Saturday’s impressive performance against the Jazz served as an encouraging sign of things to come. As things stand right now, the Clippers are a half game back from Utah and the four seed, however with this victory have secured a tie breaker over the Jazz. Oklahoma City is still lurking in the background, 1.5 games behind the Clippers, with a tie breaker over both Utah and the Clips. It’s safe to assume that the six seed and a date with James Harden’s Rockets in the first round would spell death for all three of these teams, which makes the final two weeks of the regular season a mad scramble to avoid being the odd man out.
However, if we assume (which, admittedly, is never a smart move with these Clippers), that Los Angeles can keep the Thunder at bay and land a first round matchup with Utah as either the four or five seed, there are a couple takeaways from the four games these two teams have played together that might shed some light on what a playoff series might entail.
Push the pace
The Jazz are last in the league in pace, and for good reason. Utah plays like most traditional defensive minded teams, they excel at forcing teams to grind possessions out, strategically funneling ball handlers into Gobert’s waiting maw. They gobble up a huge number of defensive rebounds and have enough individual playmakers on offense to churn out points efficiently on a limited number of possessions.
The Clippers will have to push the pace if they hope to counteract this style of play as they did in Saturday’s contest. Most of Jamal Crawford’s team high 28 points came from jump shots off drag screens (Paul Pierce had a nasty one that smushed poor Joe Ingles in the second quarter) or decisive drives to the rim early in the shot clock. The Jazz are long, flexible and menacing when they have time to set up their defense. The Clippers must dictate the pace of these games so they don’t have time to.
It happened only briefly in Saturday’s game but a lineup with the bench unit plus Blake Griffin at center looks to be a dangerous weapon the Clippers can employ when Gobert sits. The Jazz’s top three ranked defensive rating skyrockets to 107.3 points per 100 possessions when Gobert sits (which would be tied with Orlando for 21st in the league) as Utah’s backup bigs sans Favors tend to turn the paint into a veritable layup line.
While Doc is notorious for his unwillingness to stagger his stars, it’s difficult to imagine the Clippers taking full advantage of Gobert’s absence by playing Speights at center. Blake’s ideal situation has always been as a playmaking small ball five, and while the Clippers bench doesn’t provide him with the array of shooters that would fully maximize Griffin in this role, they provide enough firepower to torch the Jazz’s bench. There’s only so much the Clippers can do to space the floor when Griffin and DeAndre share it, why not use the minutes where both team’s shot blockers are on the bench to unleash Griffin.
The Favors question
Derrick Favors played in only two of the four games between LA and Utah with limited success. However his presence looms large in a potential matchup between the two teams. In order to beat the Clippers, Utah will have to outmuscle LA, following a similar formula as the Grizzlies in the heyday of Memphis and LA’s postseason rivalry.
Without Favor’s hulking presence in the paint, however, its difficult to envision the Jazz’s path to success in a seven game series. As it stands, Utah has no one outside of Boris Diaw and Joe Ingles to defend or box out Blake Griffin, which is going to be an issue. Favors, who’s had his fair share of injury troubles in recent years, has been out with a left knee contusion since March 8 and has no real time table to return. Knee contusions are a tricky business and it’s impossible to know what shape Favors will be in come playoff time in a few weeks. But if he does come back healthy, this series could get a lot more interesting.