Playoffs 2017: West First Round -- Clippers (4) vs. Jazz (5)

Series preview: Veteran LA Clippers ready for upstart Utah Jazz

Young Jazz out to disrupt rhythm Clippers enjoyed at end of regular season

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Is this a playoff series between the Comings against the Goings? That’s a simplistic if perhaps a tad bit of an overreach, given the situations the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers find themselves in on the eve of the first round.

The Clippers are a veteran playoff team team who might be on the verge of feeling the wrecking ball if they flop. The Jazz haven’t won a playoff series or game since 2009-10 nor have they been to the playoffs since 2012. Yet they’ve been steadily building through the Draft since then and are showing some staying power inside the Western Conference.

And so, the sense of urgency is squarely with the Clippers. Three players in their rotation — Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and JJ Redick — will be free agents this summer and may be playing for money … or at least a spot on the roster in the future. Along with center DeAndre Jordan, this group still hasn’t won anything special, or come close to it, despite their considerable and collective Team USA and All-Star appearances and many commercials.

Meanwhile, the Jazz are looking to taste the fruits of their labor, having gone the steady and lengthy route of allowing their youngsters to mature without pressure. All-Star Gordon Hayward and company aren’t just happy to be here. They feel as though a strong regular season served to sound the alarm to the rest of the West.

3 quick questions and answers

Can Gordon Hayward force the Clippers to make constant adjustments? In three games against the Clippers (he missed one with injury) this season, Hayward was dangerous in only one (a 27-point effort in a 114-108 win in March 13). The Clippers don’t offer a strong, athletic swingman to put him on lockdown. Utah will require Hayward to score either at his average or beyond to give coach Doc Rivers some headaches. Otherwise it could be a short series.

Who’ll stand taller defensively: DeAndre Jordan or Rudy Gobert? This is a quirky matchup between mirror-imaged centers who are offensively-challenged but bring a heavy fly swatter. Over the last few seasons, Jordan has been the standard for this type of big man. However, Gobert will generate some Kia Defensive Player of the Year interest after averaging nearly three blocks in 2016-17. You wouldn’t want to see a 1-on-1 contest between the two, though.

Can George Hill keep his dream season going? Anyone who thought Hill would be this impactful on the Jazz was perhaps kidding himself. And yet Hill’s first season in Utah ranks as one of the season’s bigger surprises. With the Jazz hurting for clever and steady point guard play since Deron Williams left, Hill came and stabilized the position. But now, Paul looms.

The number to know

152 — The Jazz were the only playoff team that didn’t have a lineup that played at least 200 minutes together. Their regular starting lineup (and most-used lineup) — George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert — was on the floor for just 152 minutes over 14 total games. The Jazz were 12-2 in games their starters were together, but injuries were the story all season. The Clippers’ starters, despite injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, were the third most used lineup in the league and outscored their opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions with their starters on the floor together. Among lineups that played at least 300 minutes this season, only the Warriors’ starters were better. But while the Jazz ranked sixth in *aggregate bench NetRtg (plus-2.6), the Clippers ranked 25th (minus-3.8).

* Aggregate bench NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions with bench players on the floor, weighted by minutes played.

Making the pick

Perhaps to squash all the doubts, the Clippers are rolling into the postseason. They’re getting strong play from all of their money players and are anxious (if not desperate) to go on a deep run. Is this a mirage … or are they warming up at the right time? Given that they bring playoff-tested players at all the key positions to this series, while Utah’s are aging role players (Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson), this series could swing their way. The hard and tough questions about their future will come eventually in LA, but probably not for another three weeks. Clippers in 6.

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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