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Clippers-Jazz Preview: First Round Foes For Now

The West’s current 4th and 5th seeds face off for the first time since October.

NBA: Preseason-Los Angeles Clippers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are going streaking, having won two straight for the first time in nearly a month. They’re just 3-5 since Blake Griffin’s return, but that doesn’t sound so bad when you consider the competition. Those five losses came against noted powerhouses Golden State (twice), Boston, Toronto, and, the most powerful of all, Philadelphia. All could very easily have been defeats even with Chris Paul in the fold. (Well, maybe not against Philadelphia.) Blake is carrying a load. If you like arbitrary endpoints, then you’ll like that Blake is averaging a cool 28/8/5 for February, with 1.6 steals and a nifty 54% field goal rate. Better still, the Grammys were held last night, so the annual trip-that-never-ends actually ends tonight after just five games on the road. The Clippers can make this trip a winning one with a victory tonight while getting a look at a possible first-round opponent in the process. We’re just two months out from the playoffs. Every look counts.

The Antagonist:

The Utah Jazz, once perennial contenders when two dudes named Stockton and Malone suited up there, appear to be heading back to the postseason for the first time since the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season. In other words, the Jazz have made the playoffs just once during Chris Paul’s Clippers tenure, and that’s beginning to feel like a long time. Their current winning percentage is the franchise’s best since 2009-2010, Deron Williams’ last full season there. In other words, the rebuild has been a slow one, but Utah’s return to basketball relevance is symbolized by star forward Gordon Hayward, who, like DeAndre Jordan, will be making his first All-Star game appearance next Sunday. Hayward could easily have been joined by fellow homegrown stud Rudy Gobert, whose own All-Star debut is on hold largely because of DeAndre’s selection. The Jazz are back on schedule.

The Subplots:

  • Comparison of Key Metrics: Slow and steady. Are we talking about Utah’s rebuild or buildup of play? Former head coach Jerry Sloan never fielded a team of track stars, but current head coach Quin Snyder has steered his young roster into the slow lane. The Jazz are dead last in pace. A ponderous game would be a welcome one if Chris Paul were around, but this current group of Clippers has found better success in transition. Tonight’s tempo could be key.
  • The Schedule: The Clippers host the Hawks on Wednesday night. The Clippers who aren’t involved in the All-Star game festivities will get a full week off before returning to action on February 23rd in a TNT tilt against the Warriors.
  • Availability: Rodney Hood has been ruled out through the All-Star break with a sprained LCL. He suffered the injury when he hyperextended his knee on February 1st against the Bucks.
  • A “Dental Appointment”: That’s how Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle described the experience of playing the Jazz. Grit and grind has worked its way west as the Jazz are currently the third-ranked defense by efficiency. Three of the NBA’s five best players averaging at least 25 minutes/game by defensive rating wear Jazz on their chest: George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Gobert. They don’t let you shoot free throws (sixth in opponent free-throw rate), they don’t give you second chances (fourth in defensive rebounding rate), and they just don’t let you shoot well (third in field goal % allowed).
  • Which Five? Utah’s most commonly used five-man lineup is its preferred starting lineup: Hill, Hood, Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Gobert. But that lineup isn’t very good. Those five have managed a -4.7 net rating, which is slightly better than the Phoenix Suns’ overall mark. All of their best lineups feature Boris Diaw next to Gobert, which i s getting awkward for Favors. The former third-overall pick is still a season-plus from unrestricted free agency, but is finding himself contributing less to Utah’s success than was expected. He’s a productive player with upside left, but the uncertain fit may lead to his eventual departure.
  • For the Utah perspective, check out SLC Dunk.