R: So... a ton has changed since our last chat. The series is now tied 2-2, Rudy Gobert and Austin Rivers have returned, and Blake Griffin is now done for the season.
What are your general thoughts on the series so far?
A: This series has been nuts. It's 2-2, which is kind of what I had expected after four. I didn't expect that it would go WLLW for the Jazz (or LWWL from your point of view). My pre-series prediction was seven games, and I still think that's what we're going to get. So in that regard, things aren't that different from how I thought it would go - in the big picture. The small picture has been a roller-coaster with Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, and Raul Neto being in or out for the Jazz; and Blake Griffin, Austin Rivers, Diamond Stone, and J.J. Redick being out for the Clippers. Well, Redick is there, on the court, but he has not been "The J.J. Redick" so far this series. Jamal Crawford was also a no-show until Game 4.
We can all agree that Chris Paul would look like the best player in this series, and he has. Easily. And we can also agree that the expectation was for Gordon Hayward to struggle against Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Aside from his career high 40-point outburst this has also been true. We didn't expect Joe Johnson to turn back the clock though. He has been remarkable. I didn't expect him to raise his game like this. So I'm really surprised.
What have your general thoughts been? What's been the biggest disappointment?
R: I generally agree with all those points you made. It's been a wild ride, and most of the games have been quite intense down the stretch. There's nothing quite like playoff basketball, even though the end result is usually heartbreak.
JJ Redick has been an absolute abomination for the Clippers. He's been unable to get free on the offensive end, and, consequently, has rushed the few good looks he has received. As his struggles have mounted, he's been pushed into wild shots and awful turnovers, rarely doing much of anything positive on the offensive end outside of nominally drawing the defense's attention. His defense has been worse, however-- he's gotten torched by Jazz wings time and again, and the Clippers have been forced into poor switches as a result. Simply put, he's been a massive negative.
On the other side of the coin, Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson have been stupendous for the Jazz. Johnson's ability to play out of the post has crushed the Clippers' smaller defenders, and he has passed out of doubles correctly and promptly. Ingles' defense on Redick has been the best I've seen, as he hasn't let the sharpshooter get an inch of space. Meanwhile, on offense, he's hit big shot after big shot, and passed exceedingly well out of the pick and roll. The Clippers haven't been able to stop either of them, which is a real problem.
The biggest disappointment for me has been health, as you mentioned. I really, really wish we could have seen a series with a healthy Gobert, and Blake Griffin, and even guys like Austin Rivers and Alec Burks. The playoffs should be the best basketball of the year. What we have seen in this series is still high-quality, but nowhere near what it could have been if both teams were healthy.
Do you think Johnson can keep this up for the rest of the series? He's been so unbelievable, it's difficult to think he can play like this all playoffs. Then again, it is seven time All Star Joe Johnson...
A: Health has been a problem for both of these teams all season long, and sadly it appears the playoffs will be no different. That sucks for the players, the teams, and the fans. It's clear that if they were healthy that neither of these teams are "51 win" teams. That number should have been much higher. As a result, it seems like the upper ceiling isn't that high either - as whomever wins will have to play the Golden State Warriors. But you never know, there's enough time in this series for a team to start to play really well with the pieces they have. And a team playing well has a chance against a super team.
Right now, Joe Johnson and Joe Ingles are playing quite well. But there are a few factors here. The first, and most obvious one, is that the actual defensive focus is to make life hard for All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. And life has been very, very tough on him thanks to the successful gameplan by Doc Rivers. We've also seen the elimination of most of the 'easy' high pick and roll stuff that feeds the bigs. The second factor is, yes, Ingles and Johnson have been stepping up. Part of that is because of the strategic decisions made by the Clippers Xs and Os. Your brain trust looked at the film, and decided that this was the way to go. I think you gamble on the Jazz rotation guys shooting 40% from three instead of giving up midrange jumpers to Hayward or lobs to Gobert. It's the right move. On paper, it's 100% the right move. Utah shooting above 40% is a small sample size problem.
And I honestly still think that All-Star Joe Johnson playing well is also a smaller sample size issue. He's not the primary defensive focus (he may be in Game 5 down the stretch) and the Jazz work everything in crunch time to get him in a mismatch against LAC's worst one on one defender. Or in the case where he's being defended by someone bigger than him (like what we saw against Blake in Game 1) he can take them off the dribble with ease. I still think this is really one of the few 'cards' Quin Snyder has to play in this series. His hot shooting, like that of the rest of the Jazz group, cannot be statistically sustained.
But it's really a combination of open looks and defensive choices. Utah's shooting out of their mind, but it's because LA is giving up the three, and closing down the pet plays of the Jazz' best players - Hayward and Gobert. The opposite is what we're seeing from Utah. Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan are looking unstoppable at times, but most everyone else is shut down. It's really a strange series.
Blake Griffin was also eating Utah alive and it sucks that he's not going to be available anymore. Austin Rivers will be. Does he help more on offense (reliable play maker and scorer) or is his value lie in having another capable defender be on the court (while J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford have not been)?
R: That's a very interesting point you made about the Clippers' defensive schemes. And I agree with you that, for the most part, they've been working. The issue is that the playoffs are the ultimate small sample size. A series can be won or lost based on hot shooting, and right now it is looking like the Clippers' gameplan might cost them, even if it's been effective.
Joe Johnson has just been absurd. The Clippers have mostly played good defense on him, and it just hasn't mattered. That's what size, experience, and shot-making ability does, and why Joe Johnson has remained effective so late into his career.
I wonder if Doc might not switch things up a bit in Game 5 with the return of Austin Rivers. Rivers was the best bench player for the Clippers this season, and his absence has been sorely felt at several moments this series. He will be on a minutes restriction, but I suspect he plays around 20 minutes.
I think his value will show itself more frequently on the defensive end. He is a capable offensive player, and his ability to attack the basket in particular will be valuable against a Jazz team that has really restricted the paint at times. Hopefully he will also be able to consistently hit outside shots, as JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford have failed to do so. However, his defense is needed desperately. He's not a lockdown level defender, but he's good, which is a huge improvement on Redick, Crawford, and Felton (to a lesser extent). Rivers is a bit small to stick on Joe Johnson, but he's tough in the post, and is quicker off the ground on shot contests. I'd expect to see some of him on Johnson, but also on Joe Ingles and Gordon Hayward depending on Jazz lineups. If Redick's cold shooting continues, he may lose time in 3 guard lineups to Rivers (and Crawford, if he remains hot).
What did you think of Rudy Gobert in his first game back? He looked pretty good to me, but I'm sure you're much more knowledgeable of how he played compared to normal. Will he improve in the next few games, or do you think this is probably what we are going to see from him the rest of the series (and playoffs)?
A: It's a flat-out L for Doc if Austin Rivers takes some of Ray Felton's minutes. Felton is out here balling and extending the LAC leads when CP3 is out of the game. Okay, that may be an overstatement, but Felton has been about as good as J.J. has been bad. Austin is a huge X-Factor in these multiple ball handler line-ups. The Jazz have displayed their inability to handle one ball handler (hence: starting this off talking about Omega Ray Felton), Rivers and his quickness will force Quin Synder to make adjustments. And that's going to hurt Utah who currently have a good thing going on right now. Utah's been successful by going PG SF SF SF C for a lot of this season. That's a lot of length to switch around on pick and rolls. Having to go with a smaller guy to counter Rivers weakens the entire defensive chain. So, I'm not certain on which side of the ball Rivers is going to hurt the Jazz more on. Defensively he's an upgrade. But offensively he could break the Jazz' entire scheme. I think he did that already once this season.
That said, I guess the actual scheme is funnel guys into Rudy Gobert. Rudy was tremendous this regular season and he played in 81 of 82 games. The team didn't have a lot of experience playing without him on the court, so I was amazed that the team went 1-2 without him in the playoffs. I am surprised to see him back, frankly. And I wouldn't have brought him back. The 24-year-old center who just signed a long extension isn't worth risking over a first-round playoff series. But the Jazz said that they are playing him because, according to them, there is no risk for further injury by making him active vs. injury reserve. I also figure that it's hard to convince Rudy to stay out of games. He's a 'gamer'. He wants to be out there.
What we saw of him was a guy who was effective in the limited minutes he played. He made his free throws, he got offensive rebounds, he helped the Jazz get out to a dominating above .850 DRB% (a huge problem in the games without him when guys like DeAndre Jordan and Marreese Speights were eating Utah alive). He tried to pass a little bit, but didn't really move the defense with the ball (the point of passing). But he was efficient. He didn't miss a shot from the floor, even if his timing and elevation were off. He did dunk it all over guys, which is normal for him.
The main benefit is that he locked down the paint on defense, was only victimized by CP3 twice all game, and on offense really set the Jazz guys up with big time screens. Rudy looked okay. He didn't play the perfect game, but seeing him out there was a huge plus. He's clearly not at 100% and may not be until training camp. But if he's able to neutralize DAJ that's more than enough to give Utah a shot in this series best of three.
Of course, it may not even be a best of three with the way Jamal Crawford shot in Game 4. How streaky is he? Can he turn a series when he's hot? I don't think I've ever seen him miss against the Jazz before in my life except for Games one, two, and three. So I fear him quite a bit.
R: It's funny you say that about Ray Felton. Ray is regarded as a bit of a joke by many NBA fans, even knowledgeable ones, but he's been absolutely fantastic for the Clippers this year. He's probably the steadiest hand the Clippers have had at reserve point guard in the Chris Paul era outside of Darren Collison, and his ability to play next to Paul has come in handy several times. He's really good. Austin Rivers might siphon off a few of his minutes, but I'd suspect Redick and Jamal will lose more.
Gobert certainly made his presence felt in Game 4, as I felt he severely outplayed DeAndre Jordan in his limited minutes. I agree with you that I wouldn't have brought him back either, though that calculus might have changed if anyone but Golden State was waiting in the next round (fully rested now, too). He's going to be huge in the last three games if he plays as well as he did in Game 4, though I would suspect that DJ doesn't have as poor a game as that one either.
Jamal Crawford is one of the streakiest players in NBA history. I say that without any statistics to back me up, but I'm 100% confident in it. There are nights (like Game 4) where he looks like he might be the most unstoppable player in the league. Then there are nights like Games 1-3, where he absolutely damages the team he's playing for with inefficient scoring and poor defense. As he's aged, the ratio of great games to poor games as decreased, and "vintage Jamal games" have become increasingly rare over the past couple of years. I think he certainly could unleash a similar performance in one of the remaining games, but I wouldn't bet on it. He's definitely a player that can win a game, but I wouldn't be *too* worried about him.
It seems almost certain that this series goes 7, though I think the overall chances of the Jazz winning has gone up a lot with the Gobert return and Blake injury. How confident are you that the Jazz pull out the series victory?
A: I'm not terribly confident. The only thing I was expecting was a 6 or 7 game series. And I predicted the Jazz to win, but c'mon, I kinda have to. In crunch time the best players have to step up. We saw Gordon Hayward hit for 40 in one game, but for the series average 20. So that tells you what you need to know about what he did in the other three games. Rudy Gobert isn't at full strength and I don't know how many minutes he is medically allowed to play in a row without resting. Joe Johnson has been very effective, but I've seen him miss these shots before as well. The most reliable thing in this entire series has been Chris Paul's brilliance.
my gut tells me this is going to go the Clippers' way. If I'm wrong, and if LAC loses, it's not going to be his fault.
I think LAC has the best remaining star. And he's the most reliable one as well. And he's been great all series. Furthermore, nothing Quin Snyder has thrown at him as done anything to stop him. If you are an LAC fan you have to look at that and feel a little more confident as a result.
As a Jazz fan there's a very small margin for error. For the Clippers, they are in the driver's seat. And the guy at the wheel is a future Hall of Famer.
R: I love that neither one of us is confident in our teams at all. I can't even imagine being a Warriors fan, and walking into each series with an almost surety of victory.
Chris Paul has been awesome. He's the best Clipper of all time and one of the best point guards basketball has ever seen. If anyone is going to drag the Clippers to a series victory they don't particularly deserve, it would be Paul.
Yet I can't shake the simple fact that the Clippers by and large haven't played great basketball in this series, and that the Jazz are now close to fully healthy for the first time. I'm still going with the Clippers, now in 7, but am expecting a let-down of some kind. That's what this Clippers team is best at, after all.
A: No matter who wins, at least we're not Warriors fans (aka Kobe Fans who jumped ship from the Lakers). Screw those guys.