It took seven games, but the Los Angeles Clippers finally shook off the playoff demons and ousted Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks at home on Sunday to move on to the Western Conference semifinals. Some might be troubled it lasted that long, but in the final five games, the Clippers outscored the Mavericks by 10.7 points per 100 possessions and posted a 119.1 offensive rating in winning four times. That team is what Utah is getting in this series, and that might be a problem for the Jazz.
In February, Utah was rolling. The Jazz had won 20 of 21 heading into a road game against the Clippers on Feb. 19, a team they had just beaten two nights prior by 18 points. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard had missed that game, but were available to play at Staples Center that night and shockingly a different result awaited Utah. Los Angeles averaged 1.172 points per possession and burned the Jazz’s shaky mid-range defense on 23-for-44 shooting from that area of the floor. Leonard scored 29 points and snapped Utah’s winning streak. It is one regular-season game, but the matchups exploited that night are ones that will likely work in the Clippers’ favor in this playoff series.
Utah finished the regular season as the most efficient defense in the league, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, but its mid-range defense has been a weak link. Elite mid-range scorers have given the Jazz trouble, and you can look no further than the last series in which Ja Morant torched Utah for 30.2 points and 8.2 assists per game on 48.3 percent shooting from the floor. Chris Paul of the Suns averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 assists on 45.7 percent shooting in the three regular-season games against them.
The problem for the Jazz stems from a defense that allowed the second-most mid-range attempts in the regular season. Yes, the mid-range jumper is an inefficient shot, so it is beneficial to allow teams as a whole to take them. However, when you allow elite mid-range scorers to do so, your defense suffers.
Leonard is an elite mid-range shooter, taking 49 percent of his attempts from that area of the floor while shooting 47.4 percent on those shots. Utah also has no real option on defense for him. Royce O’Neale is a capable defender but gives up size to him. Bojan Bogdanovich has the size but cannot stay in front of Leonard. The Jazz have no true option for the Clippers’ best player and the mismatches continue from there.
Utah has no single player that will command the Clippers’ defensive attention that Doncic did in the first round. Donovan Mitchell is a tremendous scorer but will not force Los Angeles to blitz off screens or double then subsequently rotate. Leonard, George or Marcus Morris are all capable of handling that assignment on their own if need be. Should Mike Conley miss time in this series that is also one less ball-handler for the Clippers to worry about.
The Clippers have all of the pieces to bother the Jazz. An offense built around a mid-range scorer who can shoot on par with Utah, and defensive wings with size who can overwhelm on that end of the floor. Do not let the series with Dallas skew your evaluation of Los Angeles. Instead, focus on those five games in which the Clippers dismantled their opponent. That is the true form of this team.
Jonathan Von Tobel analyzes the NBA for Point Spread Weekly, VSiN’s digital magazine for sports bettors.