As dramatic as the first series against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks was, the Clippers have no time to dwell on their 7-game series victory as they face a tougher team in Utah, who led the league in most regular season wins. Four games into the series, they are tied two games to two. And just the way the first round series against the Dallas Mavericks unfolded, the Clippers faced two devastating losses in the first two games only to come back and tie the series back in the third and fourth games -- this time losing two in front of the packed crowd in Utah and winning two at Staples Center.
With a best-of-three series between the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers just around the corner (the first of the three takes place at Salt Lake City on Wednesday), these are five areas the Clippers have thrived on and should continue to do moving forward.
Defense Wins Games
Donovon Mitchell, just like Luka Doncic, is a superstar. He has proved in the past two playoffs that he can lead a team deep into a series, dropping 30 every night. And simply put, the Clippers cannot do much more to stop him from making his step-back threes and fearless takes to the rim. Putting Kawhi as the primary defender has proven successful, but switches and mismatches are inevitable facets of the game that Ty Lue and the Clippers should not spend too much time thinking about.
What can be done, though, to help heighten the chances of the Clippers winning two out of the three games is to minimize the opportunities the Jazz’ players can have in the presence of the 24-year old superstar in Mitchell. That is, the Clippers should focus more on stopping second-hand opportunities created from Mitchell than Mitchell himself.
One strategy Lue has effectively employed is for the stronger defenders to switch freely while the defensive liabilities move more quickly and force favorable matchups, preventing mismatches. Similarly, the Clippers were fast on their feet: they ran back up and down the court at a fast pace and used their length to ensure no easy buckets were made in the paint, hence their impressive opponents points off of fastbreaks at 5.8 and points in paint at 32.5 in the past four games, first amongst all playoff teams.
In a similar vein, the Clippers have had fun on the offensive side implementing their small ball lineup. Admittedly, the Clippers’ centers, Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins, struggled in their matchup against the 7 foot 1 Rudy Gobert, recently named the Defensive Player of the Year. Lue addressed this issue by putting Batum back in the starting lineup, going small. Ever since then, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has been more of a liability on the defensive end as the agility and shot-making of the Clippers allowed for them to drain more shots while dragging Gobert out of the paint, opening up lanes for proficient slashers like Geroge and Leonard to take.
This notable change is not only seen in the games but also the stat sheets. The Clippers have the best offensive rating of 124.7, helped by their 42.1% three point percentage. By replacing a traditional center with Batum and Morris, the Clippers have five shooters in their starting lineup who saw immense success from behind the arc. Not to mention, the Clippers better followed Lue’s principles of giving up the good shot for the better shot when they have five players who can handle the ball and space the floor. The final games of the series will show who the better shooting team is -- in the regular season, the Jazz led the league in most three pointers made while the Clippers were the most efficient from the three-point line.
Playoff P is back!
Leonard has once again shown that he is as composed and deadly as a terminator in the playoffs, averaging an impressive 30.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, shooting close to 60% from the field. Although Leonard is the clear first option for this talent-filled team, it seems that the role of the second option Geroge is more crucial. If he is able to deliver his usual near 25 points per game as he has in the regular season, this team is hard to beat; however, without his help, the load might be a little too much for Leonard to carry.
Fortunately, it can be firmly said that Playoff P is back and better than ever. Leading the team with 39.8 minutes, the seven-time All Star has continued to have a great impact on both sides of the court while being more and more aggressive on offense. Averaging 27.3 points, shooting 41.8% from the field, and 44.1% from behind the arc, Paul Geroge has contributed greatly to the two blowout wins in LA: he scored over 30 points in the two most recent contests.
The Clippers’ Depth and Lue’s Coaching Flexibility
Unlike last year’s Clippers, who had a disappointing playoff run, blowing a 3-1 lead as a result of no major changes made by former Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers, this team is flexible, and credit is due to Tyronn Lue. Lue is unafraid of taking risks and putting unfamiliar names on the starting lineup. Namely, he took Beverely out of the 8-man rotation in the first round, making more use of Jackson and Rondo. For this round, Kennard and Beverley are getting more minutes as a consistent scorer and a tough defending leader, respectively. Similarly, from this flexibility, Lue was able to and successfully did take a risk by replacing a traditional center in Zubac with Batum.
Using the team’s great depth, it is as if Lue is ready to form different strategic teams in response to the way in which the opponents come out. After taking two losses in the first two games in the first two rounds, the Clippers bounced back with two wins -- perhaps this is Lue understanding better the changes that need to be made for the Clippers to beat the opposing team. The more specific results are as compelling as their wins in games 3 and 4. Beverely, who was given major minutes in this series upon not having played the final two games in the first round, had 4 blocks in game 4 and was a pivotal piece in bringing Clippers’s fans onto their feet. Mann’s undeniable presence is effectively captured by his stellar plus or minus numbers: plus 4, 3, 21, and 15 for the first four games. Jackson has continued to put on spurts of offensive knack, dropping a whopping 29 points in their loss at Utah. Zubac and Rondo are also two reliable role players who can turn the switch on whenever their names are called on. In short, the Clippers’ depth works in harmony with Lue’s flexibility and is definitely something to keep an eye on in the final games of the series.
Kennard, the Underrated Game-changer
Coming off a surprising major $64 million dollar signing for the Clippers, Luke Kennard hasn’t proved much for himself in his first season in a Clippers uniform. Matter of fact, he had multiple DNPs and had reduced minutes in the first series; however, as Lue continues to use Kennard off the bench, NBA fans should watch out for what this former blue devil can do on the court.
Shooting an outstanding 68.4% from the field, draining 60% from three, and averaging 8.8 points in just 17.3 minutes, Kennard has been a major spark off the bench. What’s more, Kennard is a composed ball-handling sharp shooter who can help facilitate and take the load off the two superstars; likewise, he always has potential to drop 20 points in that when he gets into a rhythm, there are not many things the opposing defense can do to stop him from flushing five or more threes.
Clippers’ fans should be excited and confident going into the final games of this series. This might be the first time in team history that the Clippers make it to the Western Conference Finals, but the end goal is far from near. Kawhi Leonard stated it in his interview after his 31-point game in game 4, "I don’t even care about the Western Conference Finals. I'm trying to win a championship." To his liking, it seems like the Clippers are closer to winning a championship than they have ever been.