The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz capped off Tuesday night's NBA playoff slate and they provided fans with quite the performance as the two sides went back and forth for the majority of the second half. In the end, it was the Jazz that came away with a 112-109 win to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series.
Donovan Mitchell was superb for Utah as the All-Star guard finished the win with a game-high 45 points to go along with five assists and three rebounds. Kawhi Leonard led the way for the Clippers with 23 points but he failed to get the type of support that Los Angeles would have hoped for out of Paul George as he finished with 20 points while shooting just 4-for-17 from the field.
With the win, Utah takes an early lead in this series with Game 2 scheduled for Thursday night. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Game 1
1. Mitchell's moment
The Jazz had the best record in the NBA this season. Their point differential was even more impressive. They lost five home games all regular season. And yet, by the time the series began, the odds were essentially even. Conventional basketball wisdom led many to pick the Clippers. Why? Because they have the superstars. Kawhi Leonard has been there and done that before. We just watched him slay the Mavericks last round. Utah is unfairly regarded as a team without star power. That notion should be shattered now.
Donovan Mitchell's 45 points were the difference in this game, and he scored them in entirely sustainable ways. If the Clippers are going to put Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard on the floor, they shouldn't be surprised when an opposing All-Star guard hunts them. Luka Doncic has been doing it for two years. Mitchell was just as impressive in this one. It wasn't just hot shooting. It was complete and utter mastery of pick-and-roll offense.
And Utah needed it. Mitchell can typically lean on Mike Conley in big moments as a co-pilot for Utah's dominant offense. Conley has played in more big games like this, even reaching the conference finals with Memphis. But he was out with a hamstring injury and it showed early on. The Jazz missed 21 straight shots as they adjusted to life without him. But Mitchell stepped up. That's what superstars do. If there was any doubt about his place in the league entering this season, that should now be gone. He's a star capable of going toe-to-toe with players like Leonard. He won that battle in Game 1.
2. Adjustments are everything
Ty Lue saved the Clippers' season by going small against the Mavericks. He had no other choice. Doncic was roasting Ivica Zubac, and he needed extra spacing to keep up on offense. So Nic Batum moved to center and the rest was history. On paper, this had the potential to be a real matchup advantage against Utah. The best way to attack Rudy Gobert is to draw him away from the basket. His perimeter struggles have been largely overblown, but he is undoubtedly at his best near the rim. Maximizing spacing is the best way to get him away from it.
A lot of good that did the Clippers in this one. Gobert won this game with a last-second block of Marcus Morris on the perimeter, but Utah's size as a whole presented problems for the Clippers all night. Utah only won the rebounding battle by four, but the gap hit double digits before a furious rally by the Clippers late in the game. Utah scored eight more points in the paint. They had an easier time generating good shots than a Clippers team that isn't designed to get to the basket.
The question now becomes, what can Lue do to counter Gobert and Utah's physicality? Zubac held his own in 20 minutes on the floor with the Clippers only getting outscored by one in his minutes. Do the Clippers revert to playing big? Does DeMarcus Cousins get a longer look against bench lineups that won't be able to hunt him as easily as Mitchell can? Lue solved the Mavericks last round. He's got a much tougher test ahead of him in the Jazz.
3. No rest for the weary
Mitchell himself pointed out how tired the Clippers looked. He was caught on camera reminding his teammates that they just played a Game 7 two days ago and that he expected them to fold if the Jazz pushed the lead high enough.
That's not what happened, but it would be hard to deny that the Clippers looked tired in this one. It might have been the residual exhaustion from the Dallas series. It might have been the altitude in Utah. It might have been a fluke. But if the Clippers are tired, that's going to pose a real problem for them because this series was not scheduled to accommodate rest. The Clippers took so long in the first round that this series needs to move quickly in order for them to catch up with the rest of the league. All seven games will be played on an every other day schedule. There are no two-day breaks built into this series.
That gives Utah an advantage, especially if this series goes the distance. That's what makes this loss so devastating for the Clippers. Conley was out. They led by double digits. They had a chance to not only steal home-court advantage but remove any pressure for Game 2. Now they're fighting for their lives yet again.