Robert Flom: Hey Amar,
The series our favorite teams are competing against each other in happens to be many neutral observers' favorite series in the first round. What are you looking forward to the most in this Clippers-Jazz showdown?
Amar: Hey Rob,
I'm really excited for two things. The first is the obvious one - I get to see my team in the playoffs for the first time since Josh Howard was starting for the Jazz. (Don't . . . don't look it up. It's just so much failure.) I'm sick of covering the NBA Draft Lotto and scouting NCAA and International players (starting in January). So this entire process of fighting for homecourt in the first round was quite a breath of fresh air. The second, less obvious, thing I am looking forward to most is seeing two teams that are (on paper) well matched go at it. These teams have the same record, record against the Western Conference, and same home and road records. Both play defense and have offenses that can really kill the other team if the shots are falling. Furthermore, these are teams that try to maximize their talents, either by getting open threes or getting to the line. It's going to be a fun series that sees a team in their 6th year together trying to advance against a team that's never made it this far before - probably just happy to be there?
I don't know. It's going to be fun regardless. What about you? What are you looking forward to?
R: I fully understand the excitement for the playoffs. Even though this is the Clippers' 6th consecutive year of making the playoffs, the fun of it never goes away. It's so, so much better than waiting for draft day, even if you know your team doesn't have a real chance of winning it all.
I think what I'm looking forward to the most is the Rudy Gobert vs DeAndre Jordan matchup. Gobert was my personal (and completely meaningless) choice for Defensive Player of the Year, as I thought he provided the most impact on defense on a game to game basis of anyone in the NBA. He is also, in my opinion, by far the best player on the Jazz. The good news for the Clippers is that Jordan is one of the strongest counters to Gobert in the entire league. He's almost as big, even more bouncy, and is no slouch as a defensive player/rebounder himself. Gobert is going to dominate around the basket on the Clippers' end of the floor. What DJ needs to do is keep Gobert off the offensive glass, and to be just as cruel to the Jazz as Gobert will be to the Clips. If he does so, the Jazz's chance of winning the series plummet.
If Gobert ending lives is my biggest fear about the Jazz, what worries you most about the Clippers?
A: Chris Paul. He's the ghost of so much Utah Jazz insecurity. The Jazz opted to select Deron Williams at #3 back in 2005 instead of Chris Paul - even though everyone thought that Paul was a better player then and would be a better pro. William was larger, and supposed to be less injury prone. Jerry Sloan's system was supposed to favor a player with Williams' talents as well. But aside from their first four or five seasons it's been a very one-sided argument for who was better. Paul has been a Gold Medalist and All-NBA / All-NBA Defensive player for almost every season of his career. And this is going to be his first chance at playing in the playoffs against the team that should have drafted him. Utah has had nothing but point guard trouble since trading Deron away to the then New Jersey Nets. Paul is everything Utah hasn't had. Stability. Excellence. Defensive intensity. A deadly mid-range and three point shot. Paul could probably take the Jazz out in the playoffs by himself, if Doc Rivers elects to sit Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for the first round.
George Hill is a nice player. And in the Eastern Conference you can get away with Hill being your starter. Out West? Stephen Curry. Tony Parker. James Harden. Russell Westbrook. Mike Conley. Damian Lillard. And this future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul? Hill is clearly the inferior player here. He's a lot better than the guys backing him up though. But while Rudy Gobert / DeAndre Jordan is strength against strength it's clear that CP3 vs. any Jazz point guard is a huge advantage for your boys.
I wonder, is there even a Jazz advantage that strikes the fear in Clippers fans? Can you think of any, because I'm not coming up with much?
R: I'm just happy that you appreciate Chris Paul. Too many NBA fans don't realize just how superb he has been, and still is (he just won Western Conference Player of the Month, by the way). Yes, he's never made a Conference Finals. Yet, outside of one series, it's never been even close to his fault.
I tend to agree. While Hill is a good theoretical defender on CP, being younger, taller, and more athletic, he hasn't been particularly effective guarding Paul. On the other end, while Hill is certainly a solid player, Paul is more than capable of keeping him under wraps. I'm sure Hill will have some moments, but I can't see him winning that matchup on balance.
JJ Redick is the weakest defensive player in the Clippers starting lineup, but I don't believe the Jazz have anyone who can consistently punish him. Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles are good players, but if the Jazz go to them frequently to attack Redick, that's a win for the Clippers, as it takes the ball out of better player's hands. Gordon Hayward is the best offensive player on the Jazz, and is having a fantastic season, yet Luc Mbah a Moute defends him as well as anyone in the NBA. I just don't see Hayward having a huge series against him. If Derrick Favors was fully healthy and playing to yesteryear's standards, I'd be a bit less confident in Blake's dominance of his opponent... but he isn't doing so.
So, I guess this sounds cocky (and I'm sure will come around to bite me) but there's not really a terrifying matchup for the Clippers barring something unexpected. What do you think is an X-Factor that could swing the series in the Jazz's favor?
A: I think you have every right to be a little cocky, after all your team won the season series 3-1 and as a direct result have home court advantage. Your players are seen in National TV ads as spokesmen. They are in dunk contests and all-star games. The Clippers have been in the playoffs a whole lot more than the Jazz have over this time period - if there ever was a time to feel cocky it's gotta be now.
Utah's got the opposite problem, if it is indeed a problem at all. No one expects them to do anything. They are the underdogs. They lost the season series. They've had their lunch eaten by LA for the last few years regularly. Their coach isn't the Coach of the Month. Their star isn't Player of the Month. They've had one All-Star in over five seasons, not multiple ones in the same season. And most of all, they don't have experience together as a unit, and are not battle tested. Sure, Joe Johnson is a clutch killer in crunch time. Boris Diaw has a ring. And so forth. But this group is a big question mark.
However, a similarly sized question mark hangs over the Clippers. Is this as good as they are going to be? Can they win eight games in a playoff year? As I see it the only real X-Factor is how expectations come into play. The longer this series goes the more it favors in the Jazz, who are young, inexperienced, don't have star players, don't have a former COY coaching them, and so forth. The very legacies of guys like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are going to be at some level limited by their playoff success. Or lack of it. That may not be fair, but it is what it is.
And expectation is the X-Factor that LA has to worry about. Utah is going to come out a lot looser as a result, and their youthful enthusiasm is going to give them both that "deer in the headlights" penalty and the "they don't know enough to know fear yet" benefit.
That's probably going to extend to the Jazz coaching staff as well, they are going to make some mistakes. What's a veteran commander like Doc Rivers going to do with his bench rotation? With Austin Rivers in doubt it's gotta be possible that your bench rotation becomes very tight. Right? Is that the way to go with the age of your guys? When's Paul Pierce's bed time?
R: What you noted has been a bugaboo of the Clippers for years: they get tight in close games. This has only gotten worse since that disastrous (and hereafter never to be talked about again) collapse against the Rockets in the 2015 playoffs. The Clippers don't play as loosely as they once did, especially down the stretch, and their offense often resorts to ISOs instead of running their normal plays. If the Jazz are able to stay in the series early, and make the Clippers work, things could get nasty for the Clippers. This is especially true because of the "legacies" at stake, most significantly for Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, but for DeAndre Jordan and JJ Redick to a lesser extent as well. If the Clippers don't make a nice run (or at least put up a good fight against the Warriors should they make the 2nd round), the roster might be shaken up this summer.
I do think that the Jazz's lack of playoff experience could bite them early, however, and if they fall down 2-0 to start the series, it would be hard for them to claw back. George Hill is the only starter (if Favors and Hood move back to the starting lineup) with significant playoff exposure, and Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, as you mentioned, are the players with the most overall experience. ISO Joe is actually a bad matchup for the Clippers, but it's kind of hard to imagine him turning the series.
Paul Pierce's bed time has something to do with never stepping on the court with the game actually in the balance. If Doc plays him real minutes, Clippers fans will be very, very upset. I don't think he will, however. In recent weeks he has shown an increasing proclivity for staggering the Clippers' starters, and I don't believe he will go away from that against a Jazz team with a potentially dangerous bench. As you alluded to, the age of the Clippers' best players is a bad sign for them playing huge minutes in too many games, but the first step is beating the Jazz. Expect Jamal Crawford and Mo Speights to be the main Clippers off the bench with Rivers out, and for Ray Felton to take the bulk of the remaining minutes. Wes Johnson and/or Brandon Bass might get a few minutes, but I'd expect an 8 man rotation for the most part until Rivers returns.
Do you think Quin Snyder will adjust his playoff rotations at all? Is there someone you would like to see more of than usual against the Clippers?
A: I had to re-read Doc's rotation and just shake my head because of how everyone is a weapon. Even guys like Brandon Bass have had good games against Utah (albeit for other teams than LAC in their careers, but anything can happen). I think Quin is going to be forced to adjust things all over the place. For one, he had to use 23 different starting line-ups this year because of injuries. The team rested a lot of players down the stretch in order for the chance of being healthy in the playoffs. It will remain to be seen if that is indeed the case. If everyone is available we're going to be seeing some guys who are used to playing get all hyped up for the playoffs, only to get a DNP-CD. It looks more and more like former Clipper training camp member Joe Ingles will be getting the start. Boris Diaw, who is just on the opposite side of the "this is a physical athlete" spectrum from Blake Griffin will do battle against him as well. I guess the hope is that Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors keep the bench above water while Dante Exum and Joe Johnson (another dichotomy of age vs experience) make it a nine man rotation.
I'm a homer for Alec Burks, but I suspect we'll see new contract mode Shelvin Mack instead. Which is . . . rarely a good coaching adjustment.
But again, this is Snyder's first trip as well. (If we're discounting what he learned under Larry Brown when he was an assistant coach of these same Clippers back in the '90). What have you see change from Year One of the CP3/Blake/DJ core to this core? How does a team stay good for six years in a row in this crazy free agency landscape?
R: Yeah I'm not sure any of the guys you mentioned can guard Blake Griffin over a 7 game series. I know Johnson was game in the last Jazz-Clips game, but he will probably get exposed as time goes on. Same for Boris Diaw, who has given Blake trouble in the past but is on the wrong side of the aging curve.
I like Shelvin Mack more than you, but he (and Dante Exum) simply stand no chance against Jamal Crawford, who Clips fans are expecting to have a big series.
The biggest change over the past 6 years has undoubtedly been DJs growth from promising youngster to All NBA and All Defense level talent. Blake is roughly the same player he was outside of being a better jump shooter, and Paul is somehow just as great (albeit in different ways) as he was when he first arrived in LA. One of the keys to prolonging the Clippers' winning ways was the arrival of JJ Redick, who had been simply superb overall as a Clipper.
The worry is that if the Clippers bomb out this year, the team as we know it probably won't fully return next year, but it's impossible to know right now.
I've admired the Jazz's method of rebuilding without tanking, and it's finally producing results. This series and its result not withstanding, how optimistic are you for the Jazz's upcoming future?
A: Well, Blake is at his peak right now. No one should be able to stop him. That's probably why Quin Snyder is not going to use just ONE guy on him. I expect to see Derrick Favors, Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Gordon Hayward, Trey Lyles, and even some Rudy Gobert on him at times during the next few games. Crawford has been hurting Utah his entire career, so I don't expect that to end all of a sudden.
It's been admirable that LAC has kept their group together for so long. There was a period where the Jazz were able to have a Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Andrei Kirilenko core together and they did get to the Western Conference Finals at least once. But they couldn't keep everyone together. Ronnie Brewer, a starter, was traded. Wesley Matthews who became a starter left after one year. Carlos Boozer went to the Bulls and ended his career. At the end of that 'core' the Jazz were struggling to keep some level of continuity there. Perhaps that group did see their own rise and fall and falter - not being able to get past the Los Angeles Lakers in the Playoffs. And it all ended, leaving the Jazz in a mid-stream rebuild after moving Deron Williams away for (mainly) a rookie and several future picks.
I don't wish that upon any team or fan base out there. Well, expect maybe the Lakers. Screw those guys.
Utah appears to have a bright future - even if Gordon Hayward changes addresses. Rudy Gobert is pretty damn good and pretty damn young. Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, and others are still young too. Point guard is going to remain a trouble spot until some level of stability organically grows there. George Hill is a free agent this summer so maybe there's going to be some more upheaval. We don't know. But we fans are seeing a legit team being built despite the limitations of being a small market team that's in a very cold place. It's built around defense. And Gobert really helps make up for a lot of mistakes. It appears sustainable. I just don't know how high the ceiling is going to be without a top dog on offense.
So I ask you, what's harder to get: a team mentality, or a legit first option? We've seen a lot of different Clippers teams over the year, and this current era seems like one of the best. So no doubt you have some strong feelings about this.
R: The Clippers have been through their fair share of failed rebuilds and short-circuited successes, and it usually takes longer to recover than fans think when starting it. Just look at the Timberwolves and Kings (even the Suns post Amar'e). All it takes to turn things around is just one superstar.
Therefore, a legit first option is unquestionably more important than a team mentality. There aren't many of those alphas in the NBA (15 maximum), and getting one makes everything so much easier. The Clippers have been fortunate enough to have two over the past six years, which is why their comparative lack of success has been disappointing to some.
Going full circle, I expect the Clippers to win this series because they have the two best offensive players on either team. While defense is important, good offense usually beats good defense, and talent generally outweighs team play (barring severe lack of fit). Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are simply too good, I think, and that can overpower Utah's stronger defense.
I'm predicting the Clippers win in 5 because of this, but I wouldn't be shocked if it went longer. What's your final prediction for the series?
A: Having legit offensive weapons, especially in the NBA Playoffs where things bog down and it's usually (especially in this era) the team that can create points that advances, is never something to take lightly. Chris Paul has been deadly with his passing vision and his jump shooting off the bounce. He is the key to this series. If he's having his way it's going to be very difficult - almost impossible really - for the Jazz to prevail. Yet I'm going to don my homer hat and say that the Utah Jazz do win. And win in seven games. Why? Because aliens will attack, or CP3 will be kidnapped and replaced by Cliff Paul, or something else silly. Or something not silly at all, like controlling the pace of play, the glass, and thus limiting the Clippers fast break opportunities. The longer the series goes the harder and harder it's going to get for the overwhelming favorites. So I'm going to hope for a long series, one the Jazz may be able to win.
This is a lot of fun Rob! I can't wait to do this again in a few days when my team is shell shocked and already have their bags packed for summer vacations.
R: Terrific chat Amar. Thanks so much for sharing the Jazz fan perspective on the series. Looking forward to the game tonight and our future chat in a couple days.
I'll close with this. No team in the NBA is better at shell shocking their own fans than the LA Clippers.