2021 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Jazz (1) vs. Clippers (4)
LA Clippers finally ready to remake playoff reputation?
They haven't proven anything yet. But another impressive effort to erase another 2-0 deficit have the Clippers feeling good heading into Game 5.
Last time anyone was this giddy about the Clippers was two summers ago when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George held up jerseys for the cameras.
The Clippers won that introduction day, but since then only played to their potential in spurts and never gained any serious traction in the all-important postseason — you know, what they were specifically built for — until Monday.
Well: This new-era Clippers team finally arrived, smashingly so, when they bum-rushed the Jazz from the jump in Game 4 and kept their grip on Utah’s windpipe throughout the evening. All the suspense evaporated from Staples Center rather quickly and efficiently in an easy LA win. The lead, after the first quarter, never fell below double digits. If this keeps up, the Clippers will not only erase their second 2-0 deficit in these playoffs, they’ll put themselves in the conversation for the NBA Finals, which is suddenly up for grabs given all the injuries to key personnel around the league.
Speaking of that, one reason this series is tied 2-2 is because Kawhi and George — somehow — have managed to escape the injury bug, although Kawhi did sit late in the fourth quarter after tweaking his knee. Anyway, Mike Conley missed his fourth straight game for the Jazz with a bum hamstring and Donovan Mitchell, days removed from an ankle scare, had to pull the freight once again.
Mitchell has been dynamic throughout these playoffs and continued spooking the Clippers anyway, with his sixth straight game of 30 or more points to tie Karl Malone’s franchise record.
Meanwhile, the Clippers aced all phases of the game — defense, 3-point shooting (welcome back, Marcus Morris), smart play and most importantly, forceful behavior from their two stars. Again, it’s tricky to insist that anything carries over to the next game, not in these playoffs and not with this team. But there’s a sense that, at the very least, the Clippers have now pulled even metaphorically with the team that had the best record in the West this season.
When the Clippers play up to their potential, instead of being underwhelming, this is what can happen. They can dominate a game, put the other team on red alert, and change the tone and meaning of all the chatter. They can rally against the Mavericks and burst Dallas’ bubble. They can put criticism to rest. Problem is, nobody has seen this consistently from the Clippers since Kawhi and George became a tandem. They flamed out spectacularly in the playoffs last season, and began these playoffs losing a pair at home to the lesser-seeded Mavericks. That doesn’t exactly inspire or deserve universal respect.
And then Kawhi isolates and charges the rim and unleashes a monster tomahawk dunk on Derrick Favors, and suddenly … wow. Kawhi didn’t play the final three minutes after the knee tweak, but the Clippers’ lead was double digits and there’s only one day off before Game 5.
He and George combined for 62 points, one game after collaborating on 65 points. This is what coach Ty Lue meant the other day when he said “I want the steak,” meaning, he believes the full effort of his two best players is more important than the production from the surrounding cast. Still: Pat Beverley was terrific defensively and Morris had 22 points in the first half and made seven 3-pointers after shooting 1 for 10 from deep to start this series.
Therefore, the Clippers just took a pair of games in LA without much sweat, winning both by a combined 40 points. If you go by the twin victories alone, there’s a feeling that the Clippers just seized the momentum baton away from Utah, especially given Conley’s uncertain status.
The Clippers aren’t totally in the clear. They must win at least one game in Salt Lake City, in a building that sounds like the inside of a busy airplane hangar. That was the benefit of getting the top seed in the West for the Jazz, who didn’t know there would be a true home-court advantage when the regular season ended, but then the coronavirus protocols were relaxed and suddenly, humans filled the arena.
Then again, the Clippers did win twice in Dallas in the first round, so maybe they’re built for this after all.
This series is now a best-of-three and it starts in earnest now. The Clippers insist they’re all in and bringing the same mindset that followed them after falling behind 2-0 to Dallas. Crazy: The Clippers are 0-4 in games one and two this post-season and 6-1 in games three and beyond. Maybe they need a punch to the gut to realize the stakes. And maybe they’re now ready to deliver the counterpunch and knockout blow.
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