As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Clippers have owned the Jazz the past few years (won 18 of the last 20), but with the Jazz healthy will this series be different? Let’s break it down.
Which team controls the tempo? The Utah Jazz are deliberate, playing at the slowest pace in the NBA last season (93.62 possessions per game, according to NBA.com). It’s a good strategy — if you have a great defense led by Rudy Gobert, limit the other team’s chances with the ball and keep the scoring low. The Clippers are a middle-of-the-pack pace team, and we’re used to seeing Chris Paul casually walk the ball up the court — or, often, “walk the dog” letting the ball roll for as long as he can before picking it up — and not rushing into sets.
Except when the Clippers play the Jazz, then CP3 pushes the tempo. You will see Paul run off missed shots and try to get shots early in the clock — this is an elite Utah defense when it gets set, so why let it get comfortable before attacking? The Clippers starters can put up points — the starting lineup of Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan — was the third most used lineup in the league and outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions. However, against the Jazz this season the Clippers got fewer assists than normal thanks to that Utah defense. Get offense early in the clock and the Clipper ball movement should open more things up. If the Clippers pull away in games, look at the tempo while that happens.
Can Derrick Favors — or another Jazz power forward — have a monster series? For Utah to have a real chance in this series, Derrick Favors needs to show he is healthy and have a big impact. That matters when he is on the court next to Gobert, but also when he plays as a backup center and maybe can space the floor and pull Jordan away from the basket.
When Favors was out injured Boris Diaw started at the four for Utah, and he has played well offensively, but he is a big problem defensively where a healthy, active Favors can help limit Griffin. The Clippers will likely run a lot of Chris Paul/Griffin pick-and-roll, with Jordan lurking off ball and cutting to the rim from the baseline if Gobert has to help (although Gobert can recover on that thanks to his length) — if Favors isn’t healthy and Diaw has to be out there, the Clippers will have a lot more success with that play.
Due to injury we just haven’t seen a lot of Utah’s preferred starting five, but when Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Gobert have played in a game together the Jazz are 20-5. However, add Favors to that mix and they have only played 159 minutes together all season. Compare that to the Clippers starting five which is over 800 minutes.
There is a Clippers’ corollary to Favors here — Marreese Speights. If Gobert is having a strong game (or series) expect to see more of the veteran Clipper big man because he can shoot the three and pull Gobert away from the basket. The risk there for Doc Rivers is that Speights is a weak defender and the Jazz will exploit him in the pick-and-roll at the other end.
Ultimately, where will Utah’s points come from? Utah plays a lot in the half court, and they have strong ball movement there, but the Clippers have the defenders to challenge what the Jazz do well.
Mbah a Moute has done a good job this season holding Hayward in check and not letting him dominate in the half court. CP3 is a good defender who can limit the damage Hill can do. Los Angeles is strong against the pick-and-roll with Paul and Jordan. Points are not going to come easily for Utah in this series and some guys are going to have to step. Hayward is one of them. Joe Johnson coming off the bench needs to have a big series.
Utah is going to need to knock down its threes. The Jazz were top 10 in three-point percentage in the league but middle of the pack in attempts — they are going to need those extra points. Utah needs at least 10 and even more made threes per game this series (they averaged 9.6 per game in the regular season)
Prediction: Clippers in six. I’m tempted to say in five here. Yes, the Jazz are an up and coming team, the problem is this is not a good matchup for them — there’s a reason the Clippers have won 18 of the last 20 head-to-head meetings.