Rudy Gobert is headed to the line, but with a five-point lead and no timeouts for the Clippers, the Jazz still have this one in hand regardless of what happens.
The Utah Jazz have successfully defended their home court in the Western Conference semifinals as they took care of the Los Angeles Clippers in crunch time to win Game 2 of their best-of-seven series. The Jazz led by as many as 21 points, but a furious second-half comeback by the Clippers fell just short as Utah walked away with the 117-111 victory.
It wasn't Kawhi Leonard or Paul George that led the way for the Clippers. No, that would be Reggie Jackson, who poured in a team-high 29 points to keep the Clippers afloat in this one. Sadly, they were no match for Donovan Mitchell, who followed up his 45-point Game 1 masterpiece with a 37-point gem in Game 2.
With the victory, the Jazz now lead this series 2-0 as it transitions to Los Angeles. The Clippers were in this position last round, though, so comebacks are hardly unfamiliar to them. They'll have to be even better to beat this stellar Jazz team, but if the Dallas series proved anything, it was that they're resilient enough for the job. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Game 2.
1. Mitchell's mastery
As I referenced after Game 1, Donovan Mitchell destroyed the Clippers by switch-hunting their worst defenders in pick-and-roll. This is a basic superstar strategy and the easiest way to exploit a switch. The Clippers tried to adjust defensively in Game 2. It just didn't work because Mitchell destroyed basically every coverage they threw at him.
The Clippers had largely been playing small since the Dallas series in an effort to both maximize their spacing and increase switchability on defense, but after their Game 1 struggles, they went back to a big lineup with Ivica Zubac at center. Doing so forced them to play drop coverage off of pick-and-rolls because Zubac isn't quick enough to defend the perimeter. Mitchell noticed this immediately and hit Zubac for two quick pull-up 3-pointers coming off of the screens.
When the Clippers tried to blitz him in the second half, he passed out of it for easy buckets.
There is no good answer for Mitchell anymore. This is the last level offensive players need to reach to claim superstardom, and it's the point Luka Doncic reached last round as well. There just aren't any coverages left that work against Mitchell. He's mastered how to beat all of them. All the Clippers can do at this point is pick a path and hope that either Mitchell misses, or that they can force him to pass and his teammates do. That's not going to cut it against an offense this good.
2. Did the Clippers waste their best move?
We see this at some point in almost every postseason. Some team trailing by 20 or so gets desperate and breaks out a zone defense. It works for a quarter or two and they cut the deficit down to single digits, but ultimately lose the game. Then, when they start the next game with the zone as their base, the opposing team destroys it because they got a chance to look at it on film and dissect its weaknesses.
It's a tale as old as time, and the Clippers are headed down this path now after their Game 2 loss. They trailed by as many as 21 points in the third quarter, but the zone helped them fight their way back into the game. But it wasn't enough. They're now down 0-2 and don't have that card left to play anymore. As effective as zone defenses can be, their best trait is how rarely they are used. Teams are surprised to see zones. Once the element of surprise is gone, the defense becomes entirely beatable. That is especially true for teams like the Jazz that have loads of shooting.
When you factor in all of the pick-and-roll coverages the Clippers tried, it's worth wondering just what adjustments Ty Lue even has left to try. He's now experimented with virtually every lineup type and coverage style his roster can produce. Nothing is working. Perhaps better execution can make the difference here, but right now, the Clippers are on life support with no obvious medicine.
3. Not doing himself any Favors
Rudy Gobert played 36 minutes in this game. The Jazz won those minutes by 14 points. When Derrick Favors replaced him, though, the formerly impregnable Jazz defense looked entirely mortal. Reggie Jackson and Paul George were far more aggressive attacking the basket, and the Clippers won those minutes by eight points.
Favors isn't a bad defender, though he's declined since his first Jazz stint. His real crime is simply not being Rudy Gobert. Gobert's presence scares the Clippers out of driving, which makes it far easier for Utah's perimeter defenders to stick with their shooters. When Gobert leaves the floor, everything opens up. The Clippers look like, well, the Clippers again.
Big men tend to struggle especially with playoff workloads. Utah can't simply ask Gobert to play 45 minutes. They're going to have to survive these bench minutes somehow, and Favors isn't working right now. Could the Jazz get away with playing small and sticking Bojan Bogdanovic at center? Perhaps for short stretches. The all-offense approach is viable for a team with as much shooting as the Jazz, but it's not something they'd want to try for more than a few minutes at a time. Either way, if the Clippers start shooting as well as they can, Utah is going to have to figure out some way to defend the basket when Gobert is out of the game. Typically, a series against a team this talented doesn't have a margin of error big enough to survive a minus-8 stretch from a key backup.