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The Triple Team: Utah Jazz’s fatal flaw gets exposed over and over again in gruesome loss to Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, right, scores as Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell watches during the second half in Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Friday, June 18, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles • Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 131-119 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The Jazz have (at least) one fatal flaw

That’s the lesson from this series: they have no chance in the entire world in defending a team with five shooters, so long as somebody on the team can penetrate at all.

It’s just so easy. Like, here’s Reggie Jackson just simply backing down Mike Conley. Rudy Gobert has to help, or it’s an easy layup. And once he does, it’s a wide-open corner three.

The Jazz could rotate to prevent that shot, I think — and that they didn’t is a coaching failure, in my opinion, given how hot Terance Mann was — but then any team worth its salt will just find the open shooter.

But yikes, guys. The Jazz allowed the Clippers 27 attempts at the rim and a whopping 22 corner 3-point attempts, more than any other team has had in any game in the playoffs. They just would not, and could not, figure that out.

Clippers' second-half shot chart in Game 6. (NBA.com)

As always, the focus is on Gobert against small-ball lineups, and he was not very impactful at all this time. I think he had a pretty decent series, but Game 6 was simply not good enough.

He wasn’t alone. Conley, as seen above, is too small. But Reggie Jackson was driving by Royce O’Neale and Mitchell. Joe Ingles might be officially too slow to keep players in front anymore. Defense is not Jordan Clarkson’s strong suit — the Clippers were trying to attack him as much as possible. And Bojan Bogdanovic is just another guy defensively, he’s not going to get faster either.

And then on offense, the Jazz still don’t feel totally comfortable in attacking small-ball either. Donovan Mitchell can attack switches, but I’m not totally convinced Conley can, even when healthy. Jordan Clarkson’s less reliable than you’d think at that, too, even though he had a terrific first-half.

Critically, Gobert absolutely cannot beat switching defenses — that’s not Gobert’s game. He’s not tough enough in sealing off position for himself, and he’s not a damaging enough offensive rebounder to reliably punish it. He loses the ball to smaller guys approximately all of the time. And given that he’s 28, in the prime of his career, he probably always will.

The league has a bunch of teams that can do this small-ball look, and the Jazz have been eliminated by three of them in recent years: the Warriors, the Rockets, and now the Clippers. The league won’t go to less small-ball, so the Jazz have to figure out how to attack it, on both ends of the floor.

And honestly, sometimes the answer might not involve Gobert. That’s fine — if you have another option. The Jazz don’t, and got killed. An obvious Achilles heel, and the Clippers just fired arrow after arrow into it.

2. Donovan Mitchell is a top-5 shooter in the NBA

Here’s the list of players who have made nine threes in a playoff game twice in their career:

Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Ray Allen, Jamal Murray, and Donovan Mitchell.

He was absolutely incredible in this series. Remarkable. He had 45 points in Game 1, 39 tonight, 37 in Game 2 and 4, and 30 in Game 3. Only Game 5 can be fairly called a rough game by his standards, in which he scored 21. And you can make the case that it’s the second-best playoff series of his career — he scored 50 twice against the Nuggets last year, after all.

And I can’t get over this: he did it on one leg! Watching him warm up today, he couldn’t really land on the right leg, it was too much pain. He couldn’t plant off of it, not really. He couldn’t stop on it.

The difference from normal Mitchell was clear. He couldn’t really get in the paint as frequently as he wanted. Every good play wasn’t a cause for celebration, it was time for rest. He did little trash talking. He hid grimaces. He stayed on the floor when going down. He was just gutting it out.

But he hit some of the most ridiculous shots I’ve ever seen. Shots with players double-teaming him, fadeaway shots, shots with the shot-clock running down, shots while he was being fouled, shots with little jumper lift but so much arc they eluded the shotblockers and fell through the net. He shot 53% from deep in this series. I mean, look at some of these from just tonight:

I haven’t ever been afraid to be critical of Mitchell when it was deserved, and there have been games, even series, in which he deserved that criticism.

Not this time. He was magisterial. If the Jazz won this series, it’d be absolutely legendary. Because his team didn’t match that standard, it’ll be a footnote.

Well, not in my eyes, anyway. Even though the scoreboard didn’t show it, we witnessed some truly remarkable stuff from Mitchell in this series, and I’ll never forget it. I hope you don’t, either.

3. What’s next?

On Saturday, the Jazz will clean out their lockers at the Jazz’s practice facility in Salt Lake City. They’ll give Zoom interviews to the media. And then, in a flash, the year will all be done.

A year that began with such promise ended in gruesome, devastating, unforgivable, revealing defeat.

Let’s start here: the Jazz can’t run it back with this same group of guys. The Clippers exposed too many flaws. Even if the Jazz were healthy, they’d have many of these flaws. The opponent wasn’t healthy, remember, and they just pressed the “expose flaws” button — see point No. 1 — until they won.

But what can the Jazz realistically do about them?

I see a lot of fans talking about trading Gobert, but listen — on that new huge contract he has, he doesn’t have value around the league. Teams won’t be giving up useful players to acquire Gobert, they’d give up even worse contracts. If the Jazz trade Gobert, it’d be an immediate setback, even in the playoffs.

I see a lot of fans talking about firing Quin Snyder. First, Donovan Mitchell made pretty clear in his postgame press conference that he supports the coaching staff, so I don’t think it’s a great idea to move on. But secondly, here’s the big question: who would you replace him with, and how would that person do a better job? Rick Carlisle is the best available coach on the market, and he too just got smoked by this same Clippers team in exactly the same fashion.

(I’m also a believer in Snyder, even though I understand that’s hard for fans to hear right now. When you talk to people around the league about him, they talk about him in reverential tones — they’re just wildly impressed with his basketball mind. And unlike some Xs and Os experts, he also gets his players to love him. Owner Ryan Smith likes Snyder too.)

Conley is a free agent, and what the Jazz do with him will be fascinating. On one hand: resigning him would drive them so far over the luxury tax — Smith would be paying like $70 million in payments to the league to resign him. And yet, they’re golfing buddies, and the Jazz have no way to replace him if he goes: the Jazz don’t have cap space even if he leaves. He’s still really good (an All-Star!) but will he get less injury prone as he ages?

And then there’s the whole list of middling contracts like Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale, guys who are good but all have various flaws. Could the Jazz put together a trade that gets them a compelling piece back, something that changes the story? Maybe! But what does that actually look like? It’s hard to know right now.

Georges Niang probably doesn’t make any sense at all to bring back.

Oh, and who’s going to make these decisions, anyway? Rumors about Dennis Lindsey, Justin Zanik, and Danny Ainge abound. How involved will Smith be — as involved as Mark Cuban, who frequently gets involved in decisions?

There was a version of this season that just meant the Jazz would run it back, a quiet offseason. A Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals berth probably would have been enough. But will Smith be happy with a second-round exit? I don’t think so.

That means changes. That means drama and intrigue. That means a different-looking 2021-22 Jazz squad. It’s going to be a fascinating summer, I think.

It was such a wild and whirlwind year. From COVID testing to schedule congestion to Zoom press conferences to off-court drama (The team plane nearly crashed! The team switched ownership for the first time in four decades!), this year won’t be like anything else in the future. I’ll admit — I’m exhausted.

But I want to thank you all for following along with my coverage this season. I’m passionate about this job, about this team, about this life, but the reason I can do it is that I have fans like you who care, who read, who listen. Caring at all seems silly at times (especially after devastating losses like tonight’s!) but there’s a special community around this team that makes it worthwhile. I’m incredibly thankful for it — for you.

— Andy

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