Three things to watch: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz

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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.

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.

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
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One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.