The questions about Game 4 were decided by halftime.
But the questions about Game 5, and the rest of this now-tied second-round series, start off the court — the condition of Kawhi Leonard‘s knee and Mike Conley‘s hamstring will go a long way in determining which team advances to face Phoenix.
The Clippers and Jazz are now tied 2-2 after the Clippers ran away early and held off the Jazz late for a 118-104 win behind 62 combined points from Leonard and Paul George. Game 5 is Wednesday night in Utah.
As it seems with every playoff series this season, the health of key players — All-Stars on both teams — will play a large role in where this series now goes.
Leonard sat the final 4:35 of Game 4, which was not yet decided and when all the other Clippers were on the floor. His right knee — a chronic issue that leads to his load management during the season — seemed to be at issue late in the game, although his knee was not iced and no trainer worked with him while he sat on the bench those final minutes. Will his knee impact him in Game 5?
“It’s good. Next question,” Leonard said postgame.
Conley missed his fourth straight game due to the hamstring he strained in Game 5 of the Jazz’s first-round victory over the Grizzlies. For the second straight game, the Jazz missed his steadying influence on the court when things went bad, and they missed him as a secondary shot creator in the pick-and-roll. Without Conley, the Clippers have been able to load up on Donovan Mitchell and make his life more difficult. Without Conley, it’s much harder to imagine the Jazz winning the series now that the Clippers are playing their best basketball.
We saw that version of the Clippers — the “this team could win the title” version of the Clippers — in the first half.
They were hitting their threes — 11-of-22 in the 24 minutes — and getting those shots by driving into the paint and kicking out. They were playing small ball but getting offensive rebounds. Defensively they made smart switches and cut off lob passes into Rudy Gobert. It was a masterclass performance.
Plus, Leonard was doing this.
KAWHI. OH MY GOODNESS. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/PLmbCmtmaY
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) June 15, 2021
On the other hand, Utah got away from its move-the-ball and put the other team in the blender offense that earned them the best record in the NBA this season. It was one pass than an isolation play for too much of the first half. The Clippers didn’t do anything special on defense, it was conventional pick-and-roll coverages (although done with a non-conventional lineup), but their rotations were sharp and the Jazz had no answers without Mike Conley on the court (missing his fourth straight game this series with a hamstring strain).
Donovan Mitchell did his best, he scored 17 in the second quarter, but the Clippers were firing on all cylinders and led by 29 at one point and 24 at the half. Mitchell finished the game with 37 points on 9-of-26 shooting.
In the second half the Jazz looked better, moved the ball, hit threes, and got back to being more like themselves. They won the second half by 10 points but just could never get out of the hole they dug in the first half.
“The way we played in the second half, that’s who are, that’s what we do,” Mitchell said. “That second half, we need to take that home and play with that same energy.”
It’s fair to expect a different energy from Utah in Game 5. It’s also fair to wonder if the strong second half performance by the Jazz was about their play or because the Clippers got comfortable and took their foot off the gas. Those questions will be answered on Wednesday.
Still, the bigger questions are which stars will be playing, and how healthy will they be?