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2017 NBA Playoffs First Round Series Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs Utah Jazz

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Their sights are set beyond this series, but the Clippers’ long-term success could hinge on a focused, decisive first-round victory.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers
No hard feelings, guys.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

After what can probably be considered the longest and dullest regular season of the Chris Paul-era Clippers, it’s finally time for the games that count: the NBA playoffs. The Clippers have won 50 or more games in each of the last five seasons, the longest such stretch in team history and second-longest active streak in the NBA behind the immortal San Antonio Spurs. Still, regular-season disappointments ruled out a top-three finish that would have spared the Clippers a second-round match-up with the Golden State Warriors. Now, they’ll open the postseason against the Utah Jazz, with a potential second-round series against the Warriors looming in the distance.

The Big Picture:

The story of the 2016-2017 Clippers can be simply described as four months of mediocrity bookended by a month of strong play. After jumping out to a league-leading 14-2 record, and before closing the season with an impressive 11-2 finish, the Clippers limped through a miserable middle 53 games. Missing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin for 21 games each in that stretch (the Clippers played 10 games without both of their stars), and routinely finding themselves on the losing end of lackluster games against low-quality opponents, L.A. finished the stretch below .500 at 26-27. In that stretch, the Clippers’ point differential was a -0.7. In their first 16 games, their point differential was +13.6; to close the season, they were +13.1.

The question, for both teams in this series, will have to do with which Clippers team shows up. The mid-season Clippers, for all their woes, would still have a fighting chance against the Jazz—L.A. matches up well against Utah (they beat them handily in Utah without Chris Paul in February), and they’re definitely healthier now than they were during that 53-game stretch. If the early- and late-season Clippers show up, this series could be over relatively quickly, as an ambitious and legitimately dominant group looks to enter a second-round series healthy and rested.

It’s just the nature of the narrative that “The Big Picture” for the Clippers cannot be discussed without mention of the second round, even before game 1 of the first round tips off. L.A.’s futile performance in recent editions of their rivalry with the Warriors had fans and pundits alike calling for Doc Rivers to strategically tank to the 6-seed, avoiding the Warriors until a potential Western Conference Finals meeting, and possibly increasing the Clippers’ chances of their first-ever victory in a second-round series. Ultimately, Rivers opted to close the season on a strong note and secure homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In order to maximize their chances against the Warriors, the Clippers will need to be at their best against the Jazz.

Adithya

The Antagonist:

The Utah Jazz should be scarier than they are. Maybe, if they were playing a team other than the Los Angeles Clippers, who have thoroughly dominated them in recent years (winning 18 of the last 20 head-to-head matchups), they would be a little scarier. After all, the Jazz feature a deadly combination of Gordon Hayward, one of the league’s premier offensive wings, and Rudy Gobert, the favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Built around Gobert, Quin Snyder’s defense has allowed the fewest opponent points per game of any team, posting the league’s third-best defensive rating and grinding their games down to the slowest pace in the NBA.

Utah’s middling offense, however, has caused them problems. Constant injuries to George Hill left Gordon Hayward as the main driver of the Jazz offense this year, and while he had an All-NBA caliber season (22 points, 47% FG, 40% 3PT), the rest of Utah’s offense didn’t follow suit (100.7 PPG, 27th out of 30; 109.6 ORTG, 12th out of 30). Hill’s healthy return will be a major boost for Utah on that end, but in order to win games with their offense they’ll need big contributions from their secondary scorers—guys like Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, and Joe Ingles.

Ultimately, the Jazz’s relative inexperience could end up costing them in this series. George Hill, Boris Diaw, and Joe Johnson are Utah’s only players with serious playoff experience, and Gordon Hayward will get his first taste of the playoffs since being swept by the Spurs in his rookie year, while Rudy Gobert has never appeared in an NBA postseason game. How will the young, fresh Jazz, one of the NBA’s most improved teams, perform in a test on the big stage? Sometimes experience can be a huge advantage for a veteran team against a young group that isn’t as conditioned to the pace and physicality of the playoffs (even for a team like Utah, that thrives in a slow setting!). Sometimes, that inexperience can give a young team an optimistic confidence that can define a series and make an upset possible.

Adithya
Adithya

Sub-plots:

  • The Clippers’ first-round history: Last year, before the Clippers played the Blazers, I wrote this:

This has the potential to be (knocks on wood) the easiest first-round opponent that the Clippers have faced in the last four years. That doesn't mean that the team should overlook the Blazers, because up until this point, last year's Houston Rockets may have been these Clippers' easiest postseason match-up to date–we all know how that ended. Even with that said, it would feel really good if the Clippers could get out of this first-round pairing relatively quickly, relatively easily, and relatively unscathed. In every other year, that hasn't been the case. The Clippers have made it out of the first round three of the last four years–a tough 7-game series against Memphis where they got beat up, a tough 7-game series against Golden State where they got beat up, and a tough 7-game series against the Spurs where they got beat up. After advancing, those tough first-round series have taken their toll: in their first second-round try, the Spurs ran them over, and health and fatigue were irrelevant. In their second second-round appearance, being healthier and better-rested might have made the difference, but it also may not have. In last year's second-round series, fatigue and health was certainly a factor, with Chris Paul missing games due to a hamstring injury and the Clippers' shallow 8-man rotation fading down the stretch.

In short, it would mean a lot to this team to clinch this series in less than 7 games, and to have a few days off going into the second round to get rested and healthy. For the first time since this core got together, they have a real chance to do that. If they want to maximize their chances to pull off a second-round upset, extra days to prepare would be huge.

After a strong start to that series was spoiled by season-ending injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers find themselves back in the same boat: they’ve never won a series in less than 7 games, and their second-round losses have been haunted by the fatigue and injuries suffered in those brutal first-round pairings. Utah’s more imposing than the Trail Blazers were last season, but the goal for LAC has to be the same: stay healthy and earn extra rest by ending this series in less than 7 games.

  • Blake Griffin: three-point shooter? Blake Griffin’s pre-season resolution was to expand his range to the three-point line. The goal seemed ambitious but feasible based upon his progression as a shooter over the course of his career, and the efforts of past mid-range jump-shooting big men to step behind the three-point arc. Early in the season, it looked as though his shot wasn’t ready: he hit on just 22.7% of his threes in his first 26 games before having knee surgery. Shortly after his return, though, we saw a different player emerge: in the final 30 games of the season, Griffin attempted three shots a game from deep, hitting on 37% of his attempts. Doc Rivers noted this week, as I have in the past, that the real effect of Blake developing an efficient three-point jumper isn’t the extra point or two that he gets from it each game, but the spacing it creates. By legitimately stretching the floor beyond the three-point arc, Blake forces harder close-outs, allowing him to drive more easily, and he lures an extra defender away from the potent Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll combination.
  • Austin Rivers’ health: If there was doubt last year, there isn’t any longer: Austin Rivers has taken over as the Clippers best bench player. Playing significant time (and occassionally starting) at all three perimeter positions, Rivers has contributed in a variety of ways, serving as a floor spacer, primary defender, and at times filling in for Chris Paul as the team’s offensive focal point. Austin is still prone to the inconsistency that one might expect from a 24-year-old bench guard, but upticks in efficiency (from 33.5% from deep last year to 37.1% this year) and volume have made him far more effective. Rivers has missed the Clippers’ last six games with a sore left hamstring, and is set to miss at least the first two games of this series against the Jazz. The Clippers will be at their best when Doc Rivers has his son available off the bench. It’s also notable that since he joined the Clippers, every playoff series has had at least one highly memorable #AustinRiversGame.
  • The Battle Down Low: This series could very well be defined by the match-up between DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert at center. Widely considered two of the best rim protectors and roll men in the league, Jordan was the All-NBA 1st Team center last season and it’s possible that Gobert could supplant him in that spot this year. Jordan beat Gobert out for an All-Star spot this season, although Gobert has had the better season as Jordan struggled to stay engaged throughout the Clippers aforementioned mid-season struggles while Paul and Griffin were injured. If Rudy Gobert can thoroughly outplay DeAndre Jordan, it could be hard for the Clippers to make up for those margins in rebounding and rim protection. When Jordan is at the top of his game, however, he can play Gobert evenly. If that happens, the Jazz have limited avenues with which to gain an advantage over the Clippers.
  • Assists: One reason why the Clippers’ offense is better than the Jazz? Chris Paul, obviously. It’s normal for the Point God to be better than his match-up (and that’s nothing against George Hill, who is a really solid lead guard), but there isn’t always an assist margin this sizable. Hill leads the Jazz in assists, averaging just 4.1 per game, less than half of Chris Paul’s 9.8, and even less than Blake Griffin’s 4.9. The Clippers are actually only average in the assist department (22.5 per game, 15th in the NBA), but the Jazz are among the worst in the league (20.1 per game, 28th in the NBA). One thing to watch: while no Jazz player distributes with the same volume as Paul or Griffin, they have a number of crafty passers in accent roles. Keep an eye on guys like Joe Ingles and Boris Diaw, who will make good plays as distributors if the opportunities present themselves.
  • My Pick: I think that the Clippers, riding the high of their regular-season winning streak, will capitalize on home-court advantage and the favorable match-up against the Jazz. Clippers in 5.
Adithya

Steve’s Notes

For this playoff series preview, Clips Nation founder Steve Perrin couldn’t help but chime in with a few notes of his own:

  • Injuries: During a recent national TV broadcast of a Jazz game, Hubie Brown singled out Utah as the only team in the league to have lost three starters for 20 or more games each. My immediate thought was "Wait, are you implying that the Jazz have been the team hit hardest by injuries? What about the Clippers?" The statement is factually correct -- the Jazz have lost three starters for more than 20 games each, but there's also a difference between starter and star. Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and George Hill were all starters for Utah at the start of the season. But the Jazz can withstand the loss of those three better than they could have withstood the loss of Gordon Hayward or Rudy Gobert. (Hill is a close third I'll admit.) The Clippers on the other hand had to weather 20 game absences from both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, unique talents for whom LA has no real replacement. The bottom line is that BOTH of these teams, when completely healthy, are better than their 51 win regular seasons would suggest, making this a truly brutal 4-5 matchup. Does any of this provide any clues heading into the postseason? I'd give the Clippers a slight edge for a couple reasons;
  • (a) Hill and Hayward and Hood are only JUST back and could see some residual effects of their injuries, while Favors' knee is still a bit dicey. Yes, Austin Rivers is probably out on the Clippers' side, but he could be back soon.
  • (b) Benches get shorter in the playoffs and teams rely more on their stars. With Paul and Griffin completely healthy and relatively fresh (after all, they got some unexpected rest during the regular season), they can carry a big load in this series.
  • Record Against Good Teams: The Clippers and Jazz enter the postseason with identical 51-31 regular season records, but despite that fact, if you drill in a little more there's a stark difference. Against teams with winning records, the Clippers are 26-18 while the Jazz are just 19-25. (Consider also that two of those wins came in the final two regular season games against the Warriors and Spurs, two teams that had nothing to play for.) Obviously the Jazz were much better at beating the bad teams (and yes, the Clippers were depressingly disappointing against poor competition this season), but the simple fact is that there are no bad teams in the postseason. Of the 16 playoff teams, the Clippers have the third best record against winning teams (only the Warriors and Spurs were better). The Jazz on the other hand have the third WORST record against teams over .500 (only 42-win Indiana and 41-win Portland were worse).
  • 2010 NBA Draft: Back in June of 2010, the Clippers had the eighth pick in the NBA draft and as always, they needed a small forward. They chose Al-Farouq Aminu. The Jazz, picking just after the Clippers, picked Gordon Hayward. Aminu has become a solid NBA player in Dallas and now Portland (reunited with Neil Olshey) after leaving LA as part of the Chris Paul trade; Hayward just had his first All Star game appearance and is the star of an up and coming team. Now, hindsight is always 20-20, and you can play this game with any draft and any team (for instance, Wesley Johnson was picked fourth in 2010 and Paul George was picked tenth, so it's fair to say that judging small forwards stumped more than one GM that season). But we can also look into the archives and see what was said at the time. Here is an oddly prescient piece I wrote on the day of the draft about the contrast between Aminu and Hayward. (By the way, even if the Clippers had drafted Hayward, it's entirely likely they would have shipped him to New Orleans when the CP3 opportunity fell in their laps. Remember, they barely kept Eric Bledsoe out of the deal; it's difficult to imagine they could have kept Bledsoe and Hayward.)
Date Venue Final Score Coverage Stats
10/30 Los Angeles Clippers 88, Jazz 75 Recap Box Score
2/13 Utah Clippers 88, Jazz 72 Recap Box Score
3/13 Utah Jazz 114, Clippers 108 Recap Box Score
3/25 Los Angeles Clippers 108, Jazz 95 Recap Box Score