The Triple Team: Donovan Mitchell’s terrific game outweighs Jazz struggles against zone

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) is slow getting to his feet after being fouled by LA Clippers guard Paul George (13), in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals at Vivint Arena, on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 117-111 win over the Los Angeles Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Let’s talk about Donovan

Donovan Mitchell has had a completely remarkable playoffs: he’s averaging a point per minute, shooting the ball extremely well, and making very good decisions on the ball. He’s playing like a top-5 player — he might be one.

So the Clippers made a gambit: they were going to start big, which would mean they could play small and switch everything against the lineups in which Joe Ingles was the primary ballhandler, which usually bothers Ingles. But that was only going to be okay if they could survive Donovan Mitchell playing against a drop-big defense.

It was not okay. Mitchell scored 8 points in the game’s first 102 seconds, all on pull-up jumpers. Quick timeout, Ty Lue. Time to go to Clippers strategy No. 2.

So then they started switching, and Mitchell just started splitting the switch, getting easy baskets. This is a terrifically athletic play.

Clipper strategy No. 3: what if you put Patrick Beverley on Mitchell, and try to bother him with ball pressure? Here, he uses Beverley’s aggression against him, and ends up leaving him on the other side of the screen for an open shot.

Okay, fine. It’s time to stop messing around. It’s time to use the big gun, Kawhi Leonard. The former Defensive Player of the Year. The Claw. The Terminator. Sure, it might tire Kawhi out, making him less effective later, but it was a last resort option.

Oh. Wow.

If we’re honest, Mitchell was too smart to attack Kawhi directly most of the time, instead just drawing the switch, and then attacking that. That’s the thing about even great individual defenders — to some extent, you can do a lot to switch them out of the play.

Zach Lowe summed it up.

Now, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Mitchell looked incredibly tired late in that game. He struggled against the zone. He looked to hurt himself somewhat when Paul George collided into him with 12 seconds to go, and limped off the court. But he insisted he was fine.

“I got hit, and it hurt, but I’m fine now. I walked in here. I can sprint for you if you want me to,” Mitchell said. “S--- happens.”

If we take Mitchell at his word, then the Clippers are in for a short series. Mitchell being the best player in a series that contains Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is an incredibly notable finding — one that raises the Jazz’s potential to real championship contention levels.

[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]

2. Zone troubles

All of the Mitchell brilliance brought the Jazz to a 21-point lead, which the Clippers came back from in the course of about 12 minutes.

Jazz lead tracker.

That’s because they threw a zone at the Jazz, and the home team looked completely befuddled. In fact, Synergy Sports tracked the number of zone possessions the Clippers played — 22. The Jazz scored on just five of those possessions, for 13 points.

(For comparison, Jazz scored 93 points on the 74 man possessions in half-court.)

What’s the key to moving the zone? Same as a lot of defenses: make it collapse, and then find the open man.

For example, here’s Mitchell driving against the zone. They do great to screen for him, and he gets the lane. But then he has the opportunity to kick out, and should use it.

This play here is so good! Except that Royce O’Neale passes up his open shot, and kicks it to Mitchell for the one that’s further out.

The other disadvantage of the zone is that it’s not as easy to defensive rebound, because there’s not necessarily a man assigned to box out every offensive player. And with the kind of zone that the Clippers were playing — sometimes with Leonard in the middle — the Jazz could have done better at attacking the glass.

Like here, Jordan Clarkson throws up a shot, it misses. Rudy Gobert has good rebounding position, but not great rebounding position: it feels like he could have done a little bit more to push Leonard under the basket here. In the end, Leonard’s able to get his hand on the ball.

Given how the Clippers were pretty reluctant to use transition, I might even send a second athletic guy to go try to get that rebound, knowing it’s going to be hard to box him out — I’m thinking O’Neale, to be precise.

In the end, though, I think the Jazz are going to be able to beat the zone pretty easily in the future: they’ll drive, know where the help is coming from now, and kick it out. Mike Conley’s preternatural ability to make the right read every time would also help, but even without him, I think they’ll be fine after some film work.

3. I don’t think the Jazz will be able to win in that way again

So here’s tonight’s Four Factors, from Cleaning The Glass.

Jazz/Clippers four factors, from Cleaning The Glass.

You’ll notice that the Jazz lost the rebounding battle, the turnover battle, and the free-throw battle. And yet they won this game by just shooting the absolute lights out of the ball, including over 51% from three.

There was some luck in that, we have to acknowledge. Jordan Clarkson had one of the most ridiculous banked shots I’ve ever seen; he was also just on fire even ignoring that make. Donovan Mitchell was making some tough looks at the end of the first half. Joe Ingles made a scoop layup that hit the corner of the top of the backboard at just the perfect angle that it fell in the basket. And so on. Meanwhile, the Clippers missed some open threes down the stretch.

My point is, essentially, that this series isn’t over. The Mavericks won the first two games of their series against the Clippers by shooting the lights out of the ball, and then they got colder in the remaining five games, and lost.

The Jazz can’t rely on shooting like this again. They need to get more than two offensive rebounds. They need to push in transition more, something they only did 5% of the time tonight. They need to get to the free-throw line more — Mitchell was sure to point out that he only had two free-throw attempts tonight, and those came when the Clippers needed to foul at the end of the game.

Now that being said? There are real reasons to be optimistic.

In particular, the Jazz have had an answer for every single style of defense that the Clippers have thrown at them, with the exception of the zone defense, and the Jazz have every tool in the toolbox that you’d want to attack a zone.

They’ve been able to keep Leonard and George in check through terrific defense from O’Neale, Bogdanovic, and Ingles. Gobert is locking down the paint defensively — the Clippers are scared to attack the rim when he’s on the floor, and rightfully so.

The Clippers have had some outlier games of their own, like Luke Kennard’s Game 1 and especially Reggie Jackson’s Game 2.

Oh, and Conley might come back.

And then there’s the simple math of it the series: the Clippers have to win four of the next five games in order to advance. Again, there’s a chance that they could! But it’s not likely.

The Jazz have put themselves in a great spot here. Now, they need to really turn the screws, even more than they did in Game 2, to close it out.