5 questions that will define whether the Utah Jazz can beat the Los Angeles Clippers

Analysis: Clippers are the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA in terms of accuracy, and their defense will be a cut above the Grizzlies’ in the first round

(Kelvin Kuo | AP) Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, left, holds on to the ball while Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.

The Jazz got through their first-round series against the Grizzlies relatively easily — winning four straight games once Donovan Mitchell came back. But the Clippers had a tough time of it against the Mavericks, going to seven games and losing three of their four home games.

But the NBA is about matchups. Just because one team had an easy go of things in the first round doesn’t mean that will happen in the second round. And the Clippers provide a very formidable test for the Jazz, looking to make it to their first Western Conference Finals since 2007. Vegas oddsmakers still consider the Jazz as favorites for the series, despite the Clippers’ superstar talent.

Will they be able to prove them right? Here’s a look at five of the on-court questions that will define this series.

Can Jazz slow down Clippers’ efficient attack?

I want to show you this chart, from Cleaning The Glass, about what makes the Clippers scary offensively.

Clippers' shooting, from Cleaning The Glass.

That’s the Clippers’ top 11 minute-getters this season, and their shooting percentages from 2-point range, 3-point range, and the free-throw line. The colored numbers next to it are how that statistic ranks compared to other players at their position; so, for example, Nicolas Batum’s effective field-goal percentage is in the 89th percentile among NBA wings. Orange numbers indicate hot shooting, blue numbers indicate cold shooting.

You can see a lot of orange.

Essentially, nearly everyone that the Clippers play was an efficient scorer this year inside and out. Sure, you want to run Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, and Patrick Beverley off the 3-point line and force them to shoot from inside, but its hard to do that while still keeping containment of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And only Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka (sort of) are safe to allow to shoot from distance. — even Rajon Rondo’s improved from deep.

They are the league’s best 3-point shooting team in terms of accuracy (the Jazz shoot more, but make a slightly smaller percentage) from both the corners and above-the-break. But thanks to the skills of Leonard and George, they’re also one of the league’s best mid-range teams.

So what can you do to slow it down? Ultimately, the Clippers’ biggest offensive weakness is their lack of elite passing. Of the 16 playoff teams, they ranked dead last in potential assists created per game in their playoff action so far.

Sometimes, you can catch the Clippers’ creators off guard with some sneaky defense. Like here, George sees Mike Conley sneaking in to cut off the lob, but at the last minute, Conley recovers back to his man to get the easy steal. The pass itself is a pretty soft one, easy to pick off.

It’s not really in the Jazz’s nature to be that aggressive with steals and help — in general, their defense is about being solid at the point of attack, then funneling to Gobert. But Leonard, especially, thrives in those kinds of in-between spaces.

It’s a tough matchup for the Jazz, to be sure.

How well can the Jazz’s offense operate?

The Jazz’s offense was very consistent in its three regular season games against the Clippers: they had an 116 offensive rating in the first matchup, and then 114 offensive ratings in the final two matchups. That’s about as steady as it gets.

I think that the Jazz are going to be fine offensively in this series, regardless of the Clippers’ personnel or defensive strategy.

If they play big, with Zubac or Ibaka, the Jazz have shown an ability to attack that through spacing the floor and then running pick and roll with Conley, Donovan Mitchell, or Joe Ingles. Both of the first two had terrific series against Memphis in attacking Jonas Valanciunas in pick and roll, who plays similarly to Zubac.

But I also think they’re going to be fine against switching defenses, which the Jazz scored well against in the regular season. In their matchups against switching defenses, Mitchell attacked the moment of indecision of the switch well, and Jordan Clarkson got a couple of good looks while isolated on Morris after a switch.

The Clippers are a far sterner test for the Jazz’s offense than the Grizzlies, but I think they’ll be good enough, so long as they stay aggressive from three and Mitchell is heavily involved. Ideally, Rudy Gobert would be able to punish those switches with offensive rebound putbacks, but I’m not super convinced he’ll be able to — that hasn’t been a reliable factor for the Jazz in the playoffs in years past.

When the Clippers go small, how will the Jazz react?

We just saw the Clippers go to nearly full-time small lineups against the Dallas Mavericks in their seven-game series, an emphasis which really turned the series around. We also saw the Clippers use it against the Jazz for about eight minutes in the regular season. How quickly and how much they go to that small look against the Jazz is yet to be seen, but it’s fair to assume it will occur.

In particular, how the Jazz defend the paint against five-out lineups is going to be a real question. In the regular season, the Clippers were extremely successful with that look, getting open shots for their best shooters. Here, Gobert helps inside on George’s drive, leaving his man, Patrick Beverley, open in the corner.

Did Gobert really need to help there? I think the better mathematical play is to leave Bogdanovic alone to defend it, but there’s no doubt that sometimes, the likes of Bogdanovic and Clarkson are going to be beaten in five-out isolation, and without Gobert to help, things could get ugly too.

The Mavericks responded to the Clippers’ five-out offense by using a zone defense. Honestly, the Clippers smashed it to smithereens: they scored 1.17 points per possession in the halfcourt against it, against a typical average for them of 1.03.

But zone is a look that I think might work better for the Jazz than for the Mavs, because Gobert can move so, so much better than Boban Marjanovic can. The upside of the zone is that Gobert gets to be near the basket at all times. The downside of the zone is that, with good passing, it can easily lead to open threes.

I’m not sure it would work, but it might be worth a shot if the traditional defense against the five-out offense breaks down.

Who’s going to play for L.A.?

Clippers head coach Ty Lue wasn’t afraid to make changes to his rotation against the Mavericks. The Clippers started the series with Beverley at point guard, but then ultimately benched him entirely for Reggie Jackson. They also started the series with Ivica Zubac at center, before changing to a small lineup with Marcus Morris at center. At various times, Rajon Rondo, Terence Mann, and Luke Kennard found themselves in and out of the lineup.

And that doesn’t even include the trials of Serge Ibaka, who played early in the series before missing the last few games due to a back injury. It’s not clear whether or not he’ll be healthy against Utah.

With all of these different options, the Clippers have a lot of flexibility in how they play the Jazz. For example, who will guard Donovan Mitchell? Beverley actually did a good job bothering Mitchell with his pesky defense in the regular season, but was a DNP-CD in the last two games of the last series. Will he get a chance to start again? Or will they prefer to have Batum, Leonard or George guarding Mitchell, with Beverley or Jackson guarding Conley? I could see it either way.

I’m also curious to what degree the Jazz will be able to take advantage of the weaknesses of the various Clipper defenders. The Mavs forced Beverley out of the series through Luka Doncic switching on him, then bullying him — will Bojan Bogdanovic be able to do that? I think they’ll be able to attack Zubac and Kennard, if they play key roles. If Ibaka is healthy, he presents real challenges as a guy who can protect the rim a little and move his feet defensively.

Can the Jazz get more out of Clarkson and Ingles?

While the Grizzlies series was obviously successful for the Jazz, Clarkson and Ingles were not at their best. Clarkson shot 40% from the field and 23% from three, with about three turnovers per game.

Where Clarkson’s problem was trying to do too much unsuccessfully, Ingles, on the other hand, just never really made much of a stamp on proceedings. He averaged just six points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game, all well below his normal averages.

The Jazz need both to play better. Clarkson, in particular, will be hunted by both Leonard and George via switches on the Jazz’s defensive end, and he’s going to lose that battle pretty frequently. In order to be on the floor as much as he was during the regular season, he’s going to have to be hot offensively.

Ingles made his reputation by excelling against George in the Jazz’s playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder four years ago, taunting him, being physical as a defender, and just mitigating everything the 7-time All-Star is good at. But currently, he’s outside of the starting lineup, which means he can’t be matched up on George all that much.

But for Ingles to deserve more time on George, he has to be more involved on offense, too. The Clippers have very good perimeter defenders, but they’ll presumably be guarding Mitchell, Conley, and Bogdanovic. That could mean Ingles is the logical outlet to run pick and roll, but he has to be willing to be aggressive.