Entering the night, the LA Clippers had just four games remaining in the regular season. It seemed remarkable that, with only four games left, we had yet to find out whether or not the Clippers might even enter the Playoffs. The same could be said for every team in the Western Conference, seeds 4 through 10, because it’s been just that close. The 10th place Clippers and the 4th place Utah Jazz were separated by just 3 games, further illustrating just how important the result of tonight’s matchup would be.
The Jazz, who played near-perfect basketball all night, handed the Clippers perhaps their toughest loss of the season. There is still a path to the postseason for the Clippers, but that would require 3 straight wins to close the year, as well as an unlikely series of losses for the New Orleans Pelicans. Despite the stellar execution of the Jazz all night, the Clippers never led and didn’t show any encouraging signs of the ability to win 3 straight games.
For the Clippers, the injury bug just may have caught up with them. Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, and Jawun Evans have all been shut down for the year, with Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari not slated to return any time soon. The majority of their backcourt rotation, and one of their primary offensive options, haven’t been around to make an impact in some very crucial games to close the regular season. Fatigue certainly appeared to be a possible factor tonight, as they finished with 16 turnovers (leading to 20 Jazz points), shot 17.6% from deep, and allowed 8 blocks. They won the rebounding battle, 40-38, and outscored the Jazz in the paint, 52-50, but they lost by 22 in a game where Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder never played following the 1st quarter. The Clippers tallied just 18 assists, with the length of the Jazz disrupting passing lanes all night. Perhaps what stood out most, however, was the excellent execution of the Jazz at both ends of the floor. Known for their stout defense, which has been the best in the NBA since the All-Star break, the Jazz offense ran liked a well-oiled machine tonight. They finished with 7 players reaching double-figures and 27 assists on 44 made field goals, all while shooting 53% from the field and 37% from deep (on 27 attempts).
The Jazz have now gone 7-3 in their last 10 games, while riding a 4-game win streak. Since the All-Star break, they have had the third-best Net Rating and the fourth-best winning percentage in all of the NBA. The return of Rudy Gobert in late January, the consistency of Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio, and the stellar coaching of Quin Snyder have all been major factors in their success this season. But it cannot be overstated just how important their rookie phenom, Donovan Mitchell, has been for them. At just 21 years old, selected 13th overall from Louisville in the 2017 NBA Draft, he has made a strong case for Rookie of the Year contention. Mitchell is averaging 20.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.5 steals per game on 43.7% shooting from the field, 33.8% from beyond the arc, and 81% from the line. He leads all Jazz players in scoring and minutes per game, ranks 2nd on the team in steals and 3rd in assists, and has done it all, efficiently, as the second-youngest player on the roster (only behind 20 year-old Tony Bradley). Tonight, he led the way with 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in just 28 minutes of action.
The Jazz certainly earned tonight’s victory, but the Clippers had a lot of trouble communicating defensively all night long, looking lost on switches and leaving deadly shooters open frequently. They never seemed to fix any of their mistakes and couldn’t even get the game within their grasp in the second half. They will need to regroup and find a way to somehow consecutively beat the Denver Nuggets, the Pelicans, and the Los Angeles Lakers. And they’re going to need some losses in the West to roll their way. For much of the year, the Clippers have still been fun to watch even in most losses. Tonight, they just looked tired and defeated, and it’s difficult to imagine they’ll still be playing basketball a week from today. It’s been a tough year, with more change than Clippers fans have been accustomed to in quite some time. The path to the postseason looks grim, but for now, hope is still afloat.