The Los Angeles Clippers were one of the best teams in the league on paper entering the season.
The Utah Jazz were the best team in the NBA this season.
Now they clash in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs in a battle of styles. The Clippers have two long-established stars — one with a couple of Finals MVP trophies at home — and a versatile roster around them. The Jazz are more egalitarian, with a couple of All-NBA level players but a lot of talent spread out and a trust that it all fits together perfectly.
The winner of this series will be the favorite to go on to the NBA Finals from the West. Here are three things to watch in this series.
1) Mike Conley‘s hamstring
It wouldn’t be the 2021 playoffs if we didn’t start with a discussion of a potentially series-altering injury.
Utah point guard Mike Conley injured his hamstring in the second half of Game 5 against the Grizzlies. It didn’t matter, the Jazz closed out the series, and with the Clippers and Mavericks going seven games he had more time to recover.
It still may not be enough. Conley is officially questionable for Game 1.
Mike Conley is questionable for tomorrow’s game (mild right hamstring strain). pic.twitter.com/90xFa21Y9d
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) June 7, 2021
He went through portions of practice with the team on Monday, but did not participate in all of it. This will be a game-time call for the Jazz.
Conley is critical to Utah’s success. It’s not just that the All-Star point guard averaged 16.2 points and six assists a game, it’s also that he settles this team down, gets them in the right sets as a floor general, and he can be a secondary shot creator out of the pick-and-roll when defenses put all their attention on Donovan Mitchell (Bojan Bogdanovic plays a critical role that way too, and Utah will need him this series).
The Jazz were +13.1 points per 100 possessions with Conley on the court in the regular season, and that jumped to +18.6 against the Grizzlies. If he cannot play — and play at 100% or close to it — Utah has an uphill battle in this series.
Speaking of Jazz injuries, Donovan Mitchell said on Monday his ankle is good and will not be an issue this series.
2) Can Jazz slow down Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?
Utah has the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season, and everyone knows the formula: Pressure on the perimeter and if guys get beat force the drive toward two-time (and soon to be three-time) Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. It’s worked and made Utah one of the top defenses in the NBA year after year.
However, the Jazz don’t have elite perimeter defenders, and the Clippers bring two All-NBA level wings to the party in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Royce O’Neal is the best option for the JAzz, but this is not a matchup that favors Utah.
While the Jazz have Gobert in the paint protecting the rim, the Clippers don’t go to the rim that much — Los Angeles was 25th in the league in shots in the restricted area and 23rd in the league in drives per game. The Clippers launch a lot of threes (not as many as Utah, but the Clippers hit a higher percentage this season) and Leonard and George are comfortable shooting in the midrange.
The Clippers don’t play into the strengths of the Jazz defense, which means Quin Snyder and Utah are going to have to be creative in finding ways to slow the Clippers down.
3) How well do Gobert, Jazz handle Clippers small-ball lineups
Tyronn Lue is not a coach loyal to his rotations in the playoffs — he will ruthlessly figure out what works and then run that back over and over. Remember back to Game 1 against Dallas, Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac started for the Clippers; by Game 7 they barely saw the court (Zubac got three minutes in the close-out game).
What worked for Los Angeles was a small, switchable lineup with Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum up front, along with Leonard and George (Reggie Jackson started at the point). Dallas tried to counter going big but it didn’t work.
The Clippers will try to use those same small-ball lineups to play Gobert off the court, but that may not work for L.A. this time. First, Gobert is far more active and mobile than Porzingis/Boban, he can switch on the perimeter and defend fairly well in space (a lot of those open Clipper threes in Game 7 were slow-to-rotate Dallas bigs not able to contest). Second, Gobert is a good scorer inside and will punish the Clippers for going small in a way Porzingis could not.
How well Gobert and the Jazz handle the Clippers preferred small lineups will have a lot to say about this series. If small doesn’t work, Lue has other options and will try them — expect to see more Zubac this series — but the Jazz are a deep and versatile team, too, and will have their own matchup counters to whatever the Clippers do.
BONUS THING TO WATCH: Which team wins the battle of the 3-pointer? These were the two best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA this season. The Jazz took (43) and made (16.7) more 3-pointers per game than any team in the NBA this season — 48.8% of their shots were 3s. The Clippers shot 41.1% from 3 as a team this season, the highest percentage in the league.
Both teams need the 3-ball to fall to win the series, and whichever team defends the arc better and shoots better from three will have a huge advantage. It’s something to watch.
PREDICTION: This is a coin flip of a series, but even if Conley is healthy I will take the Clippers in six on the theory that Los Angeles has the best player in the series in Kawhi Leonard. But I don’t make that pick with much confidence.