By Shane Young
Before Chris Paul and Blake Griffin went through nagging injures, the Los Angeles Clippers were in position to have a top three seed in the West, with a Net Rating of +8.8 for the first two months of the season. They finished the season as the fourth-best offense in the league, scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions.
The Utah Jazz, absent from the playoffs since the 2011-12 lockout season, improved by 11 wins this year and jumped from ninth to fifth in the West. Of all 16 playoff teams, Utah is arguably the one that few casual viewers have paid attention to. If you see anyone screaming at the top of their lungs when Rudy Gobert makes the All-NBA First Team, that’s why. They aren’t dominating everyday discussions, and they aren’t the sexy choice for playoff viewing. A lot of that is because Utah’s marquee talents don’t play in the vibrant and exciting manners that rival Russell Westbrook, a sole all-star on a team with only 47 wins. Plus, they run a slower, more complex offense than most units around the league, averaging just 93.62 possessions per 48 minutes (30th overall).
In some ways, this is the most compelling series of the first round. The Clippers and Jazz are both extremely balanced when playing at their best, but in two different styles. Los Angeles finished the season as a top 13 team in both offensive and defensive rating, with defense being their weak component. Utah was also top 13 in both, but their defense anchored everything. Both teams outscore their opponents by roughly 4.5 points per 100 possessions, but have separate ways of reaching it.
It’s also quite comical the Clippers would draw dominant, scrappy defensive team in the first round, particularly one that’s about as non-Hollywood as can be. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is low-profile, while Doc Rivers tends to be in multiple headlines with his quotes. The Clippers faced a similar first-round opponent in the 2015 Playoffs, when they fought the San Antonio Spurs for seven hellacious games. That 55-win Spurs team was certainly better than this 51-win Jazz, but both series matched the Clippers against their closest competition. San Antonio and L.A. were separated by only 0.3 points in Net Rating, and this year it’s just a gap of 0.2 points.
In the four meetings against each other, the Clippers have a 3-1 advantage. Chris Paul is the only L.A. starter to miss one of these games. Gordon Hayward missed the first for Utah, as he was battling injury in early November. Despite shooting far better from the perimeter in those four meetings, the Jazz were outscored by 9.2 points per 100 possessions:
There are so many fun aspects of this series when you start to dig into the on-court matchups. Chris Paul and George Hill are two of the top five defensive point guards in the league. Hill is fifth in defensive real plus-minus of all point guards to play at least 30 minutes per game, while Paul runs away with the first place in the metric.
Paul was a sensational force in their third meeting this year, scoring 33 points on 21 shot attempts and being the only starter with a positive plus-minus. However, Utah still won that game at home, as the Clippers got very little production out of Griffin and couldn’t defend the three-point line as well as they did in the previous matchups.
In the Western Conference, where it feels like you’re up against a virulent opponent every round, the offense can’t live through one star player. Paul is undoubtedly among the pantheon of legendary floor generals, but it’s Griffin who needs to match his output from the 2015 first-round series.
In the four regular season games against Utah, his usage rating was only 22.7 percent — far below his season usage of 28 percent. Instead, it’s Paul who has dominated the ball in his three-game sample, posting a 29.8 percent usage rating. After watching the film, it’s clear why this is the case. Utah is so disciplined in its early defensive stages, causing the shot clock to wind down.
Against all other teams, the Clippers will slow down the pace late in games and use Paul’s wizardry to create the best looks. They shot 10.8 percent of all their field goals after the shot clock dwindled to 7-4 seconds remaining. On these shots, they were 43.5 percent effective. In the four games versus Utah, however, this changed. The Jazz forced them to take more shots between the 7-4 second mark, raising the Clippers’ intake to 12 percent. Here’s how great Quin Snyder’s defense can be: They slowed them down, and forced L.A. to shoot 33.3 percent in those situations — 10 percentage points below their season average.
This could be a slow series, with 23.7 percent of the Clippers’ shots versus Utah coming after 17 seconds have expired. In their other 78 games, that percentage is only 18.4. Slow offense, especially with smart players and coaches, can make for entertaining finishes in the clutch. However, it could also lead to Paul’s inner controlling mentality to seep through.
Paul is a point god and there is a subset of pundits that believe he needs the ball in his hands most of the time. That’s not false. But, for the Clippers to overcome Utah’s identity, Griffin has to bring his playmaking specialty to this series. He also needs to look for ways to attack the paint himself.
It’s a mild example, but having Griffin create off the short-roll (either for himself or a dump-off to Jordan) is when L.A. thrives:
The good news is, Griffin stepped up to the challenge during the Feb. 14 meeting (without Paul) on Utah’s home floor. He scored 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting, helping the Clippers cruise to a 88-72 victory. Every starter (with Austin Rivers at point guard) was over a +20 for the game.
Lineups become interesting in this one, perhaps more than any other West first-round series.
With Paul and Griffin on the floor against Utah’s Hill-Hood-Hayward-Gobert, the Clippers shot 47.6 percent this year. It’s only a sample size of 24 total minutes, Los Angeles was able to stretch out the floor just enough to generate solid opportunities.
One of the top lineups Doc Rivers could choose in late-game situations — and there will be close encounters during this series — is by sliding his son, Austin Rivers, into the role of Luc Mbah a Moute. This lineup of Paul-Redick-Rivers-Griffin-Jordan is an attempt to get more shooting on the floor. Even though Mbah a Moute shot 39.1 percent from three during the season, Rivers took a substantially higher volume of outside shots, making 111 at a 37.1 percent efficiency compared to Mbah a Moute’s 43 made triples.
The combination of Paul-Redick-Rivers-Griffin-Jordan has only played 130 minutes this season, but it was wildly impressive as the Clippers’ sixth-most used lineup. The Clippers scored 117.9 points per 100 possessions with it, and only gave up 101. The net rating of +16.9 is even higher than their starting group. This is exactly the type of series that L.A. should look to sacrifice some defensive strengths (with Mbah a Moute) for the offensive ceiling it has with Rivers.
It can be hard to defend L.A. when they have this lineup in place, but that requires Griffin to be consistent from the mid-range area extended:
When Utah throws a help-defender at shooters coming off a screen (Redick), it can leave one of these weapons wide open. In the play above, if Griffin doesn’t want the mid-ranger, he has another 40 percent three-point shooter in Chris Paul to his right.
You can also sense it’s going to be a hard time for any defense — including the Jazz’s — to stop the screen-rolls between Paul and DeAndre Jordan. If Utah plays both Gobert and Boris Diaw at the same time, it makes it even harder to contain. For as near-perfect of a defender that Gobert is, there’s one common way to exploit him. Every time I’ve watched explosive guards get Gobert switched onto them after a screen, they can either beat him in a foot-race to the rim or create just enough space to pull-up from the perimeter.
In Paul’s case, he’s not as quick as he used to be. But, he’ll always be able to make the most timely passes, noticing when Utah is vulnerable if Gobert is pulled too far away from the rim:
For a split second after Jordan sets the screen, it appears that Paul has an open jumper. Gobert’s otherworldly wing-span matters, though, and it wouldn’t be a clean look. From that point, it’s up to Diaw (the one being screened) to make a quick adjustment. He has to slow down Jordan’s roll to the basket, or prevent the pass from making it through. He can’t tell Gobert to stay back and contain Jordan, because Diaw is far too slow these days to recover before Paul pulls up. He’s also too slow to chase one of the most athletic big men we’ve ever seen, before a dunk occurs.
Plus, look at Hayward at the end of the play. If there was any way he could rotate to step in front of Jordan, the Clippers have Mbah a Moute wide open in the corner. Utah will have to give up something.
Gobert is going to be in an extremely difficult position during these pick-and-rolls that L.A. likes to use. Jordan is a hard screen-setter, and also one of the most feared rim-runners in the game. Gobert would like to stay home and not allow a dunk parade to take place. But, the Jazz are dealing with a floor general that can’t be left open from mid-range. Gobert can’t be everywhere. He’s only one man:
This is Paul’s 12th season in the league. Before this year, his career-high efficiency from 16 feet to the three-point arc was 48.7 percent. Now? He’s shooting 49.8 percent from that area, which is the exact spot of the shot shown above. That’s higher than Stephen Curry’s 45.5 percent this year.
As much as Utah loves Diaw — we all do, his play-style is admirable — there just hasn’t been much success with him on the floor vs. Los Angeles. Injuries have hurt the Jazz’s consistency, with the most-used lineup against the Clippers being Hill-Hood-Hayward-Diaw-Gobert for only 20 total minutes. In those minutes, Utah only generated 83.3 points per 100 possessions, leading to a -18.8 net rating.
To be fair, it’s a very small sample size and that lineup actually worked well versus all other units. It played 119 minutes for the season, with a net rating of +12.8. It has just been an issue against the Clippers, which is important for them to even make it out of the first round.
The Jazz are also able to produce in crunch time with their offensive tools. What works in Utah’s favor is that they were far better during the clutch this year, defined as “the score within five points, with five or fewer minutes remaining.”
The only teams better down the stretch of close games this year were San Antonio and Oklahoma City, led by two MVP candidates. Maybe that’s an endorsement for Hayward to squeeze into the All-NBA First Team. This is somewhat skewed because the Clippers were without Paul for a lengthy period, but the Jazz have the same injury reasoning and still maintained terrific metrics.
The glaring difference is in assist percentage, where the Jazz don’t resort to isolation ball. They get 62.4 percent of their clutch time buckets off assists. A lot of this comes down to the roster makeup. A portion of it, though, is because the Jazz have better coaching on its side.
Joe Johnson, at age 35, has played over 78 clutch minutes for Utah this season. That’s primarily why they signed him last summer. In those minutes, he has shot 16-of-30 (53.3 percent) from the field, and has one of the highest clutch net ratings on the team.
He can create shots himself, but also be the beneficiary of excellent Hill-Gobert pick-and-rolls:
The Clippers are a decently disciplined team on defense, but plays such as this indicate how hard the NBA truly can be. Hill and Gobert initiate the set with a dribble-hand-off that immediately gets turned into a pick-and-roll. The key here is that Hill never stops moving, not letting the defense get settled or refocused. Hill is respectable from mid-range and has a floater, so Jordan (Gobert’s man) has no choice but to slide over to the middle. When he does, Gobert has an open runway to the lob dunk. If Griffin doesn’t come over, Hill is throwing it to the rim.
Johnson becomes wide open along the baseline, cutting to the basket. If you watch closely, Redick thinks about dropping down to pick up Johnson. Even if he did, there’s no time. Plus, that leaves Rodney Hood — another 37 percent outside shooter with over 100 made threes — alone. Show this to people when they claim “NBA teams play no defense.”
Hill is a threat himself this year, too. When he scores 20 or more points, the Jazz have a 15-1 record. That includes wins in Washington, San Antonio, and Golden State. To say that Indiana got the bad end of that trade last year would be an understatement.
The Jazz is 33-16 when Hill is in the lineup, and only 18-15 when he sits due to injury. While they’re still over .500, that difference is astronomical for someone that isn’t viewed as a star.
Hill and Gobert have a special chemistry in the halfcourt offense that he never really had with Hibbert in Indiana. Gobert makes his job much easier. Much the same way as Utah better figure out how to stop the Paul-Jordan pic-and-roll and have strong weak side defense, the Clippers must answer questions too:
Snyder just might have the perfect style of play to knock off the Clippers, and it all comes back to slowing down the game. Against a vicious defensive team like the Spurs or Warriors, it’s harder. However, the Clippers’ main problem on defense has always been visible: They lock in for 20 seconds of the shot clock, and then someone makes a mistake at the tail end of the play.
They did a masterful job against San Antonio two years ago. They’ll have to match that to avoid the last-second errors that cost them easy points:
It’s just another reason why Hill is a smart player. He makes the timely cuts, and was basically a perfect fit for this Jazz offense.
This has a chance to be the closest, most electric, and intense first-round series of the eight. In a league where the pace is increasing each year to revive the 1980s style, we could have a series that slows it down for us to savor beautiful halfcourt execution. We’ll see two certain All-NBA selections in CP3 and Gobert, with Hayward and Jordan as the hopefuls.
Four of the top 15 players in Win Shares this season will be on the same court.
The after-timeout plays in this one could make us drool, too:
By the end of April, this series should still be alive. It’s too close to call, but we have to.
This is the Clippers’ sixth playoff run together as a big three. It’s the Jazz’s first. I’m usually in the boat of “experience is overrated if you’re a good enough team,” especially when one is the third-best overall defense.
Paul was playing lights out in the Portland series last year, before breaking his hand. He and Griffin are free agents this summer, realizing this could be the last roller-coaster ride under Rivers. They’ll prevail because of the tiebreaker for homecourt advantage.
Utah, with the best center in the league, is on its way.
Clippers in seven.
*All statistics courtesy of NBA.com*