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Clippers-Jazz Preview: The Fight for Fourth

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A win in Utah would put the Clippers and Jazz into a tie for the fourth seed.

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

The Big Picture:

Hey, look, the Clippers have won four of five! And all four wins came by a double-digit margin! But are the Clippers finally rounding into shape or just taking care of what the schedule gives them? On one hand, only two of those wins came against teams that currently possess a playoff ticket. Also, credit for the apparent defensive uptick may lie in part with the punchless opponents — three of the four rank in the league’s bottom half in offense. On the other hand, the schedule has done the Clippers no favors in regards to travel and timing. Saturday’s game was the seventh in eleven days for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and company, and the home-to-road-and-back nature of their March has seen the Clippers criss-crossing the country. So, perhaps the Clippers sit right where they should, a game behind the Utah Jazz for home court in the first round with a chance to pull even tonight, and another chance to cement it when the Jazz come to LA on March 25.

The Antagonist:

Fourth in net rating, three spots better than the Clippers. Third in defensive efficiency, a mighty eleven ranks better. With a game in hand for home court in what will likely be each team’s first round playoff matchup, the Utah Jazz have plenty in their résumé to fall back on. So why in Salt Lake City’s name can’t they beat the Clippers? Utah’s 88-72 defeat was the Jazz’ ninth straight against the Clippers, and the seventeenth in their last eighteen. And, as I wrote at the time, Quin Snyder’s men could hardly have been bothered to show up, so lackluster was their effort. Sure, the extra home game could be the crucial difference in late April, but even more than securing the higher seed, perhaps a win tonight could do something better for the Jazz. It’s time they secure some confidence. The Utah Jazz would do well to prove they can beat the Clippers just once, regardless of venue.

The Subplots:

  • Comparison of Key Metrics: As the Clippers have improved their defense incrementally over Doc Rivers’ tenure, they have remained more vulnerable than the league’s best defenses to the elite side-to-side ball movement that requires a second or third rotation. However, the Utah Jazz don’t seem capable of forcing such secondary and tertiary rotations, which may explain some of their troubles in this matchup. The Jazz rank sixth in the NBA in the percentage of made field goals that come unassisted. And that stat sticks no matter where they shoot. They’re fifth on two-pointers and sixth on three-pointers. That kind of single-vector attack is one the Clippers have become very proficient at snuffing out. Gordon Hayward’s offensive output paid a particularly heavy price in the last matchup. Luc Mbah a Moute’s long-limbed defense held the first-year All-Star to a pedestrian seven points and zero assists in February.
  • The Schedule: The Clippers return from Utah to host the Bucks on Wednesday, then turn right around and head back to the Rockies to face the Nuggets Thursday. And if that wasn’t difficult enough, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers come to town on Saturday.
  • The Schedule, Revisited: Doc Rivers told reporters on Saturday that he’ll begin to look for time to rest his players. More on that in this Daily News story.
  • Clearing the Air: The Clippers haven’t looked like the most relaxed or fun-loving group this month. Perhaps the clear-the-air session described in this LA Times story will relieve some tension.
  • Tower Stifled: Rudy Gobert took a knock on the leg Wednesday in Houston and missed Utah’s loss to Oklahoma City on Saturday, his first absence of the season. The DPOY contender is the literal centerpiece of their third-ranked defense. He is expected to go tonight, but if the rim protector is less than 100%, the Jazz will be strapped in their efforts to keep Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan from rampaging to the basket.
  • For the Jazz perspective, check out SLC Dunk.