The Clippers are once again down 2-0 in a playoff series, after falling in excruciating fashion to the Utah Jazz Thursday. This time, they’ll have three games at home as they attempt to win four out of five.
Here’s how the Clippers dug themselves a familiar hole.
The team’s attempt to play big went poorly
The Clippers switched up their starting lineup for Game 2 and went back to the group that closed the regular season: Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac. L.A. had found an identity playing small against Dallas and continued to do so in Game 1 with Nicolas Batum in Zubac’s place; but the team decided to shore up the interior defense after Donovan Mitchell got into the paint and scored at will in the opener against small lineups.
When Zubac was on the court in Game 1, Mitchell didn’t take a shot in the restricted area and drew three free throws. When Zubac was off the court, Mitchell took and made all three of his shots within five feet of the basket and took another seven in the paint, making four. He also earned five additional free throws. So when Zubac took the court to start Game 2, Mitchell and the Jazz didn’t challenge him near the basket — they challenged him on the perimeter.
Utah started the game by running pick-and-rolls with Rudy Gobert on four consecutive possessions, and their guards stepped into essentially uncontested jumpers with Zubac in a deep drop. Michell made his first three jumpers, and Joe Ingles got an easy drive to the basket; before you knew it, the Jazz were up 10-2, and Ty Lue had to call timeout.
By that point, Mitchell was already in a rhythm en route to 37 points on the night as he was once again the best player on the court.
The Clippers inexplicably left Zubac in the game after that stoppage. He proceeded to be whistled for moving screen, score an and-one on a dunk, and then foul Gobert as he was rolling to the basket, before Lue finally took Zubac out. But the Clippers stayed big for large stretches of the first half, playing DeMarcus Cousins for twice as many minutes as Zubac. Cousins was aggressive at attacking Gobert in the post and drew a charge on defense, but otherwise was more out of his depth defensively than Zubac was.
The team had success playing big when the coaching staff decided to go to a zone in the third quarter — that’s when Zubac had his best minutes. But if the Clippers use a zone to protect their defenders, they might as well get more offense on the court. Unless the Jazz are playing a lineup with Derrick Favors and no Mitchell, playing big is going to be challenging.
The 3-point battle got out of hand
The Jazz took 50 3-pointers in Game 1, an astounding number even for a team that led the league in 3-point volume. They only made 34 percent, or 17, but that was one more than the Clippers, just enough to hold them off in a 3-point win.
In Game 2, despite going to a zone for a large portion of the third quarter, the Clippers only gave up 39 3-point attempts. The problem was that Utah made 20 of them, and so many of their triples seemed to come at critical junctures. The Clippers had a chance to take their first lead of the game at the start of the second quarter; instead, Jordan Clarkson pulled up on Morris from straightaway to put the Jazz up four. The Clippers were down 52-50 with the ball and about 3:30 to play in the half, and Utah ended the half with three step-back or side-step threes to extend the advantage to 13 at the break.
In the second half, the pattern continued. After the Clippers finally got their first lead, Bojan Bogdanovic got free for a three in semi-transition to put the Jazz back up. And then Ingles walked into the back-breaking three with no defender even close to his bubble.
“We are going to go watch film, like I said, we are going to figure out a way to shore up some of the mistakes that we had,” Reggie Jackson said postgame. “Giving up the three to (Bogdanovic) after we were just up I think 101 to 100, and then giving up the Ingles three on the right wing right in front of our bench. Those are two that stick out, but we have to shore up those things and make sure we match up in transition. That’s especially where they hurt you with the threes. They shoot the most threes in transition, and they have been doing a great job with it all year. So we have to take that away, make sure we match up and then funnel them into our help defense, and then just go out here and compete.”
Some of Utah’s shooting in Game 2 was anomalous. The Jazz made 14-of-24 off-the-dribble 3-pointers, while the Clippers shot 4-of-13 on open catch-and-shoot threes. Those numbers would figure to normalize, but so long as Utah keeps getting up a high volume of threes, the Clippers will have to brace for hot shooting nights, even if they’re not having the same luck on offense.
At least Reggie Jackson came to play
The production of the Clippers role players is a total crapshoot at this point, both in terms of who sees the floor and who manages to be effective in his time. Terance Mann and Rajon Rondo were both excised from the rotation after the loss in the opener, leaving the perimeter offense to Luke Kennard, Patrick Beverley, and Jackson.
Kennard only got off one shot, as Mitchell and the Jazz made a more committed effort to closing out on him after losing track of him in Game 1. Beverley struggled mightily on the offensive end, failing to knock down either of his 3-point attempts while making curious decisions when he didn’t launch from distance. It’s a shame that Beverley’s offense was such a catastrophe, because his defensive effort was stellar. Ingles noted in his postgame presser that he and Mitchell deliberately tried to avoid Beverley.
“Donovan and I said at one point, like, whoever Beverley is not on, bring it up and we’ll get into something,” Ingles said. “Obviously he’s pretty good on the ball. I think he stole that one off me one time.”
Without those guards providing much on offense, and with Morris missing all five of his 3-pointers, the burden fell on Reggie Jackson to provide offense. Boy did he deliver.
Jackson was the Clippers’ leading scorer with 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting. He singlehandedly kept them in the game in the third quarter when Utah built a 21-point lead. Jackson had a personal 7-0 run to keep L.A. within contact, part of his 16 points in the period as the Clippers ultimately trimmed the Jazz’s halftime advantage. He kept up his shotmaking in the fourth, even hitting the three that game the Clippers their only lead of the game.
“He was great tonight,” Leonard said about Jackson. “They let him play on the island. He stayed aggressive. He got to the paint. He made some big shots. He’s been doing that for us all year.”
L.A. needed more offense beyond Jackson, though, especially with Mitchell once again popping off. Only three Clippers were in double figures after four in Game 1, making it tough to compete with the scoring punch of Mitchell, who also had five teammates score in double digits. If the Clippers can’t get a more balanced scoring performance, they’re going to have a tough time going forward in this series.