Utah Jazz fall apart on both ends of the court, as LA Clippers even series 2-2 heading back to Salt Lake City

L.A. toys with Utah’s defenders in the first half en route to a second straight easy victory, 118-104.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, center, has his shot blocked by Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, right, as forward Kawhi Leonard defends during the first half in Game 4 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Was the defense bad as a result of the offensive struggles? Or was it the other way around?

Quin Snyder, wearing a microphone for the benefit of the TNT broadcast of Monday night’s Game 4 against the Clippers, could be heard telling his Utah Jazz players during an early timeout that they were in their own heads, that their point-scoring woes would come around if they just dug in and started getting some extra stops.

He was right, of course.

Unfortunately for him, the Jazz had far too few moments of defensive adequacy — though that may have been merely a symptom of their offensive ineptitude, depending on who you asked. Either way, there were plenty of problems to go around, and as a result, the Clippers rolled to a second straight easy victory, 118-104, leveling the teams’ Western Conference semifinal series at two wins apiece.

“They just were at a different level,” said Donovan Mitchell. “And we couldn’t buy a bucket. And sometimes that’s the case, but we’ve got to continue to guard.”

There were sporadic moments of hope — a 12-4 run in the third quarter to pull within 14; a 10-2 spurt early in the fourth that got them to within 18; a 24-9 run late in the fourth that got them within 11.

Each time they seemed to be swinging momentum their way, though, they’d yield another open look — a slice through the lane for a dunk by Paul George, a sweet-spot midrange jumper by Kawhi Leonard, a no-one-in-the-same-zip-code 3 by Marcus Morris.

And all the good feelings earned from sweeping the games in Salt Lake City were undone by twice being run off the Staples Center court.

“We didn’t get out with the [same] sense of urgency that we had the first two games,” said Bojan Bogdanovic. “They hit a lot of shots, and we didn’t distribute the ball [in] the first first quarter like we’re supposed to, and they had a lot of easy transition points off our turnovers or bad shots.”

The previously moribund Morris, who came in a combined 1 for 16 from 3-point range over the first three games, went 5 of 5 in Monday’s opening half en route to scoring 22 of his 24 points before the break.

Utah, meanwhile, dug itself a huge hole by constantly having to take the ball out of the net.

For the past several days, Snyder has been preaching the need for getting stops in order to generate some transition opportunities and thus negate L.A.’s suffocating, long-armed halfcourt defense.

Instead, the Clippers were shooting 50% from the field and 50% on 22 attempts from beyond the arc at halftime, and the Jazz paid the price by getting virtually no easy looks.

Utah never did mount a transition attack — finishing the game outscored 12-0 in fast-break points.

There were plenty of other factors contributing to the woeful defensive performance: the Jazz committed six turnovers in the first quarter alone (when they also shot 6 for 21); they yielded nine offensive rebounds to L.A. in the game, contributing to 16 second-chance points; the bench barely had more points (11) than fouls committed (nine); and Mitchell got virtually no consistent scoring help until the third quarter (no other Jazz player had more than one made basket until just five minutes before halftime).

“We were playing hard, we were competing, but we weren’t playing smart and we weren’t connected,” said Snyder. “That showed with a 13-point first quarter. We were trying to attack, but weren’t putting ourselves in situations where we could have success.”

In the end, thanks to a slightly improved effort from Utah in the second half, none of L.A.’s final offensive numbers appeared all that overwhelming — 46.8% from the field, 15 of 37 (40.5%) from 3 …

Well, their 31-for-38 effort at the stripe was pretty eye-opening, as it turns out, owing to Utah’s whopping 32 fouls committed.

Still, the ease with which the Clippers scored early wound up yielding enough of a cushion to withstand the Jazz’s noisy-but-ultimately-empty final push.

“I think it starts with our offense. We said [after] Game 3, when we turn it over, or we take tough shots, it’s hard for us to be able to run back and set our defense, and they take advantage of that,” said Rudy Gobert, who garnered just 11 points, eight rebounds, and one block in 32 foul-plagued minutes. “And we foul, we get [them] in the bonus. We don’t communicate enough, so we give up wide-open 3s, or give up layups or dunks. And they get going.

“… We have to break that cycle,” he concluded.

Leonard, who tweaked his knee deep in the fourth, racked up 31 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a huge momentum-swinging block of a Bogdanovic layup attempt. George added 31 points, nine rebounds, and four assists.

Mitchell, meanwhile, forced into carrying an increasingly heavy load with Mike Conley out injured, posted his franchise-record-tying sixth consecutive 30-plus-point playoff effort, finishing with 37 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Ingles had a quietly efficient night, hitting 7 of 9 overall en route to 19 points. Bogdanovic, after a quiet, four-point first half, also came alive too late, finishing with 18 points on 6 of 12 overall.

Now, the Jazz return to Salt Lake City, hoping they can hold on to some of that second-half energy and efficacy that saw them outscore the Clippers 60-50 after the break.

“We found a few things that’ll give us an advantage and get us where we need to go. We started being aggressive and started shooting [better] as a whole,” said Mitchell. “And that’s why we cut [the deficit] to 10 or 12. If we can just continue that — the way we played in the second half — and come out at the start in Game 5 and be ready, I think we’ll be in good shape.”