The Clippers’ Game 3 win over the Jazz was largely about Los Angeles’ small-ball lineup creating problems for Utah. Star performances from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — plus key contributions from role players such as Nic Batum, Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann — led to an offensive explosion, as the Clippers shot 56.2 percent from the field and 52.8 percent on 3-pointers on their way to a 132-106 victory.
Los Angeles dominated once again in Monday night’s Game 4, defeating Utah 118-104 to even the series, but the offense wasn’t the story. This time, the Clippers cranked up the defensive intensity.
Bojan Bogdanovic scored the first bucket of the contest to put the Jazz up by two points with 11:40 on the clock. Utah scored just 11 points the rest of the opening period, as Clippers players flew around the court and disrupted the Jazz’s offensive flow. That blitz appeared to leave Utah stunned, propelling the Clippers to a 68-44 halftime lead that the Jazz couldn’t overcome, even with a strong finish.
“I thought it was our defense, really setting the tone defensively, only giving up 13 points in that first quarter,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters after Game 4. “We were able to get out in transition. I thought our our physicality, our attention to detail was pretty good tonight. Of course we made some mistakes, and that’s gonna happen when you’re playing the game of basketball, but overall I thought we were really locked in. We we really took advantage of what we did defensively to get out in transition.”
One possession from the second quarter perfectly illustrated the team’s level of focus. Keep in mind the Clippers held a 27-point lead at the time:
Let’s break this thing down. First, Leonard and Jackson switch the brush screen. Leonard follows Jordan Clarkson, and Jackson takes Donovan Mitchell, who then runs a pick-and-roll with Derrick Favors. Both Jackson and Marcus Morris initially stick to the ball, but George and Batum drop down to prevent an easy layup without straying too far from their men.
Mitchell kicks the ball over to Clarkson, who penetrates into the paint and runs into Jackson. Clarkson has a small opening to hit Favors, but Jackson’s ball pressure and Leonard’s quick recognition to slide toward the baseline close the passing lane.
Clarkson passes out to Royce O’Neale, and he sends the ball back to Mitchell well beyond the 3-point line. Knowing the Jazz have limited time on the shot clock and poor spacing, George and Jackson appear to communicate that this is a good opportunity to double-team Mitchell. George hopes to catch Mitchell off guard as he turns his back, but once Jackson fully commits to attacking Mitchell, George retreats to Clarkson.
Mitchell finds an outlet in O’Neale, but Batum is reading it all the way. He closes out hard with less than two seconds on the shot clock, and O’Neale is forced to fire a contested jumper before the buzzer sounds.
“Just everybody helping each other, making sure that we get into the closeouts, don’t give [up] straight line drives, contest jump shots and obviously getting the rebound,” Leonard said of LA’s defensive effort in his postgame interview with TNT’s Rebecca Haarlow.
Does this mean the Clippers have figured out the formula to stifle the Jazz? Not necessarily. Utah coach Quin Snyder will look to make adjustments. It’s possible that Mike Conley, inactive for the entire series thus far with a hamstring injury, rejoins the starting lineup at some point. Mitchell is still capable of a wild outburst.
What this does mean is that Los Angeles can be a damn good defensive unit when it locks in. If the Clippers want to advance to the Western Conference finals (and beyond), these are the types of possessions that they will need to string together consistently.
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