LOS ANGELES — It felt a little like Game 3 against Dallas.
The Clippers, down 0-2 in the series and tipping off in a must-win Game 3, still came out with the energy of a Tuesday night road game in February. Los Angeles was down a fast 8-0 as Clipper defenders chose to ignore a wide-open Joe Ingles and he drained a couple of 3s.
Then the Clippers flipped the switch.
Their backs against the wall, the Clippers stepped up their defensive physicality, and with that they were far more disruptive than they had been in Salt Lake City. The new strategy was switching everything with Donovan Mitchell pick-and-rolls then throwing more random doubles at him worked for a half. Most importantly, the Clippers played with a frenetic desperation on that end.
On the other end of the court, Paul George couldn’t seem to miss.
What a finish by PG! pic.twitter.com/BJFik45J0X
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) June 13, 2021
“Just being aggressive, having an offensive mindset, to get up 20-24 shots,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of what he needs from George. “That’s what we need him to do.”
They got it. Once again, it took truly desperate times to get the Clippers to give their best effort, but they did. They withstood every punch the Jazz threw in the second half and went on to win 132-106.
The series is now 2-1 in favor of Utah, with Game 4 Monday night in Los Angeles.
The biggest question for that game will be the right ankle of Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz All-Star — who had 30 points on the night — limped to the bench after tweaking his right ankle again with just more than seven minutes left in the game. He went straight to the locker room, returned to the bench a couple of minutes later, put his arm around coach Quin Snyder and spoke with him, but while they talked Leonard drained a three to make it an 18-point Clipper lead with under five minutes to play. Mitchell walked back to the bench with a slight limp, got his ankle iced, and never re-entered the game.
“He’s in good shape, he could have gone back in… but the game had gotten away from us at this point,” Snyder said after the game. “He’s fine.”
“It’s when I land,” Mitchell said of what is causing him pain. “It’s been just trying to manage it. I don’t really know what else to tell you. I don’t want to say too much. It was just the landing, but I’m good. I’ll be ready for Game 4.”
While Leonard had 34 and George had 31 in his best game of these playoffs — which sparked a ridiculous 140.4 offensive rating from L.A. — the real difference for the Clippers in Game 3 was on the defensive end. In particular, that was focused on making life difficult for Mitchell, who carries a huge load for the Jazz with Mike Conley out for the third straight game with what the team calls a “mild hamstring strain.” Leonard and George had the primary responsibilities for Mitchell, but the Clippers threw everything — and varied looks — at him.
“We just made a decision that he was not going to beat us tonight. We were going to make the other guys make plays,” George said of Mitchell.
“I think if you look at the possessions where they doubled Donovan, we got good looks,” Snyder said, adding the Jazz just had stretches where they missed those shots, and that led to transition buckets for the Clippers going the other way.
This was the other big thing for the Clippers, they sped the Jazz up this game and made them play faster and a little more out of control than normal. That is where Utah really misses the steadying influence of Conley.
That more energized Clipper defense held the Jazz to 23 first quarter points on less than 40% shooting overall. The Clippers were almost frenetic at times, except when Joe Ingles had the ball. Los Angeles seemed to use those moments to get some rest. Ingles had 11 first-quarter points and was 3-of-3 from 3, on his way to a 19-point game.
The Clippers led at half 64-49, playing their best half of basketball this series. At the half, the Clippers had a 145.5 offensive rating, led by George’s best half of the playoffs scoring 20 and hitting 4-of-7 from three. Reggie Jackson was 4-of-5 from 3 and had 14 at the break, on his way to 17 for the game.
The Clippers were playing faster and getting downhill, and once again they got a huge energy boost from Terance Mann off the bench. Mann has become the spark plug the Clippers need with their second units.
Led by Mitchell, the Jazz responded in the second half, attacking the basket more and making mini-runs — but every time the Clippers responded. Leonard took over at the start of the third, keeping Clippers up by double digits. The more aggressive Jazz scored 34 in the third, but the Clippers had 30 and were still in command of the game.
The Clippers found a formula that worked and allowed a comeback from 0-2 down against Dallas, but that will be a much tougher task against a better and more balanced Jazz team — especially if Conley returns for Game 4.
For the Clippers to win this series, they need to even it up at home on Monday — coming back from 3-1 down against Utah will border on the impossible.
If Lue can get the Clippers to recognize their backs are against the wall they have a chance.