2021 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Jazz (1) vs. Clippers (4)

Backcourt bumps and bruises loosen Utah's grip on series with Clippers

Utah's bid for its first Finals appearance since 1998 hinges on the health of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Utah’s well-oiled machine has missed a key cog in Mike Conley for most of the postseason, and a second (Donovan Mitchell) was forced to exit Game 3 on Saturday.

In a telling moment that might dictate the outcome of this Jazz-Clippers second-round series, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley were engaged in conversation on the bench while watching — or maybe, trying not to watch — the final few minutes of a wipeout 132-106 defeat.

It was hard to say for sure what the topic was — even lip-readers couldn’t solve the riddle because Conley was masked up — but let’s take a shot, anyway, shall we?

Conley: “You good?”

Mitchell: “You good?”

Well: Unless both are good enough to play, and play as close to 100 percent as possible, the Jazz could become the second playoff team to run up a 2-0 start on the Clippers, only to have nothing to show for it.

And if that happens, it really would be a shame how injuries, once again, are sticking a finger in the eye of these NBA playoffs. Here’s a roll call: Anthony Davis, James Harden, Chris Paul (recovered), Joel Embiid (playing through it), Jamal Murray, Serge Ibaka, Donte DiVincenzo, De’Andre Hunter … Mitchell and/or Conley?

Conley has yet to suit up against the Clippers because of a hamstring strain that’s officially described as “mild.” Mitchell, meanwhile, started these playoffs with a bum ankle and missed the first game of the first round. He recovered in spectacular fashion, then failed to finish Game 3 against the Clippers because of a relapse. He went to the locker room, returned with five minutes left, then spoke with Jazz coach Quin Snyder who saw the scoreboard and decided it was better saving Mitchell for Game 4 on Monday (10 ET, TNT).

“He’s in good shape,” said Snyder, lowering the volume on any Mitchell alarms.

Look, even though Utah took a pair against the Clippers without Conley, the Jazz need both to secure this second-round bag. That’s no slight against Mitchell, clearly the most impactful player in these playoffs, who once again drilled the Clippers for 30 points before ultimatley limping off.

Utah needs both guards because the Clippers are slowly figuring out how best to pump Mitchell’s brakes. They’re tossing two defenders at him — not right away, but waiting until Mitchell dribbles and begins to make a move. That strategy worked somewhat, especially in the first quarter and when Mitchell was forced to surrender the ball. And the Clippers were quick enough with their rotations to reset, find the open man and prevent getting beat on those dangerous Jazz 3-pointers.

The Clippers' quality defense gave them new life in their series against the Jazz.

Here’s where Conley comes in: He can reduce Mitchell’s reliance on the ball and therefore free up Mitchell to be a finisher. Also, Conley is superb in the pick-and-roll, and if he and Mitchell collaborate on that, the Clippers will be forced to pick their poison.

Essentially, that’s how the Jazz were able to win the most games in the league this season and become deadly enough with their 3-point shooting to lead the league in attempts and makes. Conley would be just another peg in that machine, another ball-handler and threat that puts pressure on the defense. Speaking of that, he also brings quick hands and can attack the dribble of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George when those designated Clippers stars, who combined for 65 points in Game 3, go into their isolation offense.

Yes, the Jazz will be forced to redo their scouting reports after taking this hard defeat. George and Leonard were forceful from the jump, with their 48 combined buckets making up almost half of the Clippers’ made shots. They scored from a variety of ways and that put enormous strain on Utah’s defense.

“That’s what we need from our two best players,” said Clippers coach Ty Lue.

It got better for the Clippers: They shot 56% overall, 53% from deep, with a key contribution once again from Reggie Jackson, who followed up his 29-pointer in Game 2 with 17 Saturday. This is crazy: When the season began, Jackson was on the back end of the rotation. But now that he’s dropping shots from distance and not always yielding to the stars, he’s getting major minutes and keeping Rajon “Playoff” Rondo on the bench. In the three games against Utah, Jackson is a scorching 64% on 3s. Who saw that coming?

“We need everything we get from Reggie and he’s been great for us,” said Lue.

So the urgency shifts somewhat to Utah if only because the Jazz could use some great news on the Conley injury front and reassuring news about Mitchell. Judging from the immediate aftermath of Game 3, Mitchell is good to go — the medical staff surely won’t count him out like they did a few weeks ago — while Conley is … well, we’ll see soon enough.

Doesn’t everyone want to see an entertaining and important playoff series where the better team wins, instead of the healthiest?

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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